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Forever at the Crossroads

Vodou, Santería and the Festival Arts of the Caribbean

Although Fon and Yoruba religious traditions were imported to the New World by the same means, and while the Afro-Cuban and Afro-Haitian peoples lived under similar conditions, the ritual and aesthetic expression of their respective religious beliefs differ significantly.The aesthetic of assemblage characterizes the ritual arts of the traditions of Vodou, Santería, and their secular counterpart collectively referred to as 'Caribbean Festival Arts,' and is manifested in a variety of art objects and masquerade/possession/performance traditions. Vodou refers to the Haitian religion based upon Fon and Kongo religious and ritual structures combined with a heavy influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Most of the lwa (spirits/divinities) have African counterparts. To cite only one example of many, the Haitian spirit called Ogou is the New World counterpart of the African orisa Gu or Ogùn. The deity's role evolves from his African roots as the "god of iron and war" into a mediator between two major pantheons of Vodou spirits, the Rada and Petro. This shift in character may be accounted for, as Karen McCarthy Brown states, by the "process by which African religious systems moved into the New World consisted of a search for appropriate social structural niches in which symbolic representations could survive (K. Brown 67)." In this case, Ogùn's Old World role was not applicable to New World social situations, so it was altered by the devotees.

The ritual of possession-performance is central to Vodou worship. Singing and dancing are said to entice the spirits to posses a devotee. The lwa is then said to ride the person like a horse. Once possessed, the chwal, "horse," is treated exactly as if he or she were the spirit... The possession performance has ritual constraints around which the individual chwal can improvise (70). Devotees are able to communicate directly with the spirits; priests and priestesses offer their bodies as "divine horsemen" and offer other ritual sacrifices. The intense individual involvement is summarized eloquently by Cosentino:

Reproducible divinity. Hyperreality. Vodou achieves the hard heaven Catholics only imagine. The man in the red shirt and black pants [a man who blessed people as San Mesiyo] had realized the most fervent wish of every bourgeois who ever paid a Renaissance artist to have his features painted on the face of a canvas of a saint (52).

Sharing much of the same character as Vodou, Santería utilizes Yoruba orisa (oricha in Spanish) to populate its pantheon of deities. Again, the character of the deities changes with the circumstance and history of the Afro-Cuban population. Central to the role of the priesthood is the concept of ashe, the divine life force that is present in all living things. Bolstering one's ashe through ritual initiations, devotees of the orishas are further endowed with this ineffable force transforming the individual from a normal human being into the equivalent status of "mediator" for the orishas, the priest or priestess can employ ashe to tap into the source or origin human conflicts, suffering and earthly afflictions (Ramos 58).

Blood sacrifice (ebo eje) establishes a connection between the worlds of humans and of the orichas; "a communion, the establishment of a bond between worshipper and deity that serves as a medium of exchange (59)." Worshippers also sacrifice time and money as part of the devotion of erecting a "birthday" throne each year. In this ritual/art making process, communication and personal interaction with the orichas is stressed.

Roman Catholicism has had an immense impact on Afro-Caribbean religious ritual and aesthetics. Even before importation of slaves to the New World began, African traditions were being influenced by Catholic doctrines. According to Ramos

Roman Catholicism bears a strong resemblance to Yoruba religion, especially the popular practices of rural (or medieval) Catholicism, the "cult of saints" adherents believe that the Catholic saints, like the orishas, have control over certain natural phenomena and spheres of human life (54).

Of Course, slaves in the New World were forced into participating in the Catholic church, but their conversion did not serve to subordinate prior tradition, but renew it, as the "Catholic pantheon adapted easily to African pantheism. Catholic mystery adapted easily to African magic (Cosentino 38)." In Vodou rituals, Catholic litanies are recited and Catholic saints mount devotees. Aesthetics in these traditions are also affected by the Catholic influence. Crucifixes, rosaries, plaster statues of saints, etc are incorporated into the general melange of ritual arts.

Aesthetic considerations dominate the ritual expression of many Afro-American religions, Santería and Vodou included. Blier (1995), Cosentino (1995) and Nunley and Bettleheim (1988) all define the overall aesthetic as one of assemblage; i.e. using various non fine art materials to create aesthetic and ritual objects. Cosentino goes so far as to assert that "the persistence of the ancient Fon aesthetic of assemblage remains the purest link between the religious art of Haiti and Africa (43)." Blier (1995) describes four Fon terms meaning "bringing together," "uniting," "agglomeration," and "gathering together" (75). It makes some sense that these techniques would perservere: using household materials is practical and economical. Yet, even objects created with rather expensive and lavish materials retain a certain amount of harmonious disarray.

Santería birthday altars, while sometimes involving large amounts of money and time to create, look like glorious collections of objects found from around the house. Because of the variable availability of materials, the agency of individual art makers enhances set iconography and lends flexibility and expressive quality to events and objects. For one Santería priestess the decision is made to lavish money on her birthday altar because "they [the orichas] reimburse me, they give me health, they give me the way to get the money [back] (D. Brown 125)." So, even though the altar is created to be beautiful and honor the orichas, the aesthetic choices are not made entirely to conform to a standard representation of each oricha. Instead, the artist knows his/her orichas well enough to decide what they like and what will make them proud of their devotee. Ritual artists of these traditions do not produce Madonna paintings by the dozen, but rather engage in and express personal relationships with the deities and spirits through their art.

While Caribbean festival arts share many of the aesthetic sensibilities of Vodou and Santería, these traditions express themselves in a far more secular manner. Vodou rituals borrow elements from Commedia dell'Arte, imported to Haiti in the eighteenth century, and continue to be characterized by theatricality and "improvised [action] within the framework of stock characters revealed through music and dance (Cosentino 40)." Even the rather serious ritual of possession "has a theatrical aspect; Some of the possessed have a considerable repertory of tricks (41)." Vodou devotees have re-membered West African masquerade traditions and incorporated some of the European performance style. Secular Caribbean festivals follow a similar pattern of evolution, "worked by a creole aesthetic (Bettleheim and Nunley 35)." Mass parades and costume competitions comprise the yearly "rituals" preformed at Carnival, a festival that has become extremely popular both in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Costumes and masquerade styles have derived from a myriad of sources, including African, Amerindian, European and East Indian sources. Even though the stock characters in Jonkonnu, for example, have remained the same for many years and are passed down the generations through an apprenticeship system, festival arts are characterized by their ephemeral nature and liberal borrowing of aesthetic elements. Ironically, a renewed interest in African culture, which has "inspired new forms, often distinct from those based on traditional, or tribal, retentions (37)" has served to further "creolize" these events. Even the religious dimension of the Hosay festival is hacked up and tossed in the sea, destroyed until the next year's festival and provides the opportunity for innovation that makes these festivals so dynamic.

Dynamism, agency, ritual, tradition, innovation, assemblage. Diverse elements combine to honor the divine and celebrate the secular in the arts of the Afro-Caribbean traditions examined in this essay.


Blier, Suzanne Preston. "Vodun: West African Roots of Vodou." Sacred Arts of the Haitian Vodou. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995.

Brown, David H. "Toward and Ethnoaesthetics of Santería Ritual Arts: The Practice of Altar Making and Gift Exchange." Santería Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.

Brown, Karen McCarthy. "Systematic Remembering, Systematic Forgetting: Ogou in Haiti." Africa's Ogun: Old World and New. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Cosentino, Donald J. "Imagine Heaven." Sacred Arts of the Haitian Vodou. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995.

Nunley, John and Bettleheim, Judith. "Caribbean Festival Arts: An Introduction." Caribbean Festival Arts: Each and Every Bit of Difference. St. Louis: St. Louis Art Museum (with the University of Washington Press), 1988.

Ramos, Miguel [Willie]. "Afro-Cuban Orisha Worship." Santería Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.