"I don't practice Santería, I ain't got no Crystal Ball, well I had a million dollars, but I spent it all," Brad Nowell crooned on the track "Santería," one of Sublime's most famous songs. Sublime was a band of three white kids from Long Beach, California, so a person would be justified in wondering what they could possibly know about a religion from West Africa that's practiced predominately in the Caribbean. But pay a visit to the Museum of African Diaspora and check out their new exhibit The African Continuum: Sacred Ceremonies and Rituals and it all starts to make a little more sense.
The African Continuum documents the rituals and ceremonies of "New World faiths," Santería, Vodou and Candomblé, religions that have their roots in ancient African practices, as they are practiced today in areas that were once major destinations of the Atlantic slave trade. Santería, Vodou and Candomblé are syncretic religions -- faiths in which elements from different religions are adopted and blended together, in these cases elements of Roman Catholicism and Congolese practices.
The exhibit, on display until August 28, 2010, consists of a collection of photographs documenting ceremonies, altars, and rituals around Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, New Orleans, and South Carolina, two altars created by a high priestess of Haitin Vodou and a number of dwapo.
Dwapo are Haitain Vodou flags, traditionally unfurled at the beginning of a ceremony as a welcome to spirits. They are brightly colored, sequined and beaded with intricate detail. The sequins are meant to attract deities, and the beads depict the earthly shape they would take. Priests or priestesses draw the same outlines at the start of a ceremony in the dirt or ash then dance until long after the designs are ground up and swept away -- the idea is that spirits enter the feet of practitioners and a possess them in dance.
Among Wiley's photographs are images of practitioners dancing in religious fervor, as well as images of other rituals, and practices and altars, captured by the artists over the last ten years spent observing and documenting religious practices in South America, the Carribean, and the southern United States. Some of the most captivating images are not of the people or things, but places: a foggy sunset from St. Helena Island, South Carolina, a palm-dotted landscape shot from a train in Cuba, a rusted and lichen-covered cemetery in Beaufort. There is a palpable presence in the photographs; they seem as invested with spirit as the ones that feature living subjects.
What may be most interesting about the photographs though is what they show when considered together -- a collage depicting the evolution of a religion. All three faiths have common origin, but have taken root in different places, and the images illustrate how the people in those places have taken them on and made them their own.
The exhibit includes two altars created by Dowoti Désir, a Haitian-American and a highest priestess of Haitian Vodun. They are large tables draped with fabric, and adorned with candles, clay pots, gourds, sequined dwapo, bottles of water, bottles of perfume, sequined bottles, incense, candy, coins and paper money.
Wiley's photographs of altars reflect the diversity created as the religions evolved in response to their different environments. An altar at the base of a tree in New Orleans features a jar of honey, a bottle of Bacardi and a pack of cigarettes, another in Cuba has a skull and a cigar. A note at the entrance to the exhibit tells visitors "British gin now regularly replaces the plam wine that is traditional in Nigeria, rum is the choice in the Carribean, and for disenfranchised youth in many American urban centers it is a 40 oz. bottle of beer." Which brings me back to Sublime, it seems "40 oz. to Freedom" may be a little more universal a sentiment than one might initially suppose. It's this sense of connectivity that lasts after leaving "The African Continuum." After seeing ancient religious practices transported and transformed from Africa to Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, and New Orleans, Long Beach doesn't seem too much farther at all.
The African Continuum: Sacred Ceremonies and Rituals will be on display until August 28 at the Museum of African Diaspora.