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Face of the Gods (Voodoo)

Face of the Gods

Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas

The following information й relates to the exhibition Face of the Gods, 
conceived by Robert Farris Thompson, professor of Afro-American Art at 
Yale University and curator of The Museum of African Art in New York 
City, where this traveling show originated. The exhibition links the 
visual grammar of altar traditions of West African (Yoruba) and Central 
African (Kongo) civilizations with those of Yoruba and Kongo descendants 
in Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, Puerto Rico and in Black and Latino North 
America. Face of the Gods can be seen up to February 19 at University 
Art Museum, Berkeley and March 19-May 4 at The Museum of Fine Arts, 
Click here to see a photo of an altar called Face of the Gods

Altars everywhere are sites of ritual communication with the 
supernatural. They mark the boundary between heaven and earth, the 
living and the dead, the ordinary and the world of the spirit. Elevated 
or grounded, simple or elaborate, communal or personal, altars focus the 
faithful in worship. They provide an arena for offerings and requests 
they act to channel positive and negative forces. The Yoruba term for 
altar, "face of the gods," and the Kongo concept of altar as a 
"crossroads" or border between worlds, are the operative metaphors used 
throughout the exhibition.
Using the altar as a vehicle for historical reconstruction, the 
exhibition explores how, despite the destruction and disruption caused 
by the slave trade and the imposition of Christianity and foreign 
culture, African people and their descendants in the Americas maintained 
the essential elements of African religious traditions through 
improvisations and adaptations to local context.
Face of the Gods presents approximately 18 altars made up of more than 
one hundred examples of African and African American works of art. Some 
of the altars are reconstructions, based on field photos, using loan 
objects from altar artists, national and international museums, and 
private collectors. Altars have also been installed with the assistance 
of distinguished artists/traditional leaders like Josщ Bedia of Cuba, 
Balbino de Paula from Brazil, Felipe Garcэa Villamil of Cuba (now in the 
Bronx), K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau of Zaire, John Mason, Yoruba priest from 
Brooklyn, Amira Lepore and her son, Anadeau, Umbanda specialist from New 
York City, Alberto Morgan, Yoruba specialist from New Jersey and C. 
Daniel Dawson, special curator consultant.

Prelude: Kongo syncretism

Face of the Gods begins outside the museum where Palo Mayombe
 ground-drawing, or firmas, have been applied to the pavement. Palo
 (stick in Spanish) is a Kongo-based religion in Cuba; Mayombe, a 
location in Western Zaire. These signs are considered the signatures of 
spiritual entities associated with the Palo religion. Drawn on chalk or 
sometimes gunpowder, they are used to attract and incorporate those 
powers for protection and health.
A procession of multicolored, sequined flags dedicated to the Haitian 
deities of sevi lwa, commonly known as Voudou, lead the visitor. This 
national religion is composed of many strands: from Dahomey came the 
worship of a pantheon of gods and goddesses (called lwa) under one 
supreme Creator; from Kongo and Angola beliefs in the transcendental 
powers of the dead and in the effectiveness of minkisi (charms used for 
the healing and social harmony); from Yorubaland a pantheon of deities (
orisha). In Haiti these flags are paraded at the beginning of ceremonies 
to herald the coming of a god or goddess. They are flags of mediation 
between our mundane world and the world of the lwa and represent a 
Creole variation on the Kongo theme of the ritual dancing of the cloth.

Yoruba Gods and their Emblems

The Yoruba, one of Sub-Saharan Africa's most populous groups, sixteen 
million strong, live in the Republic of Nigeria. They are heirs to an 
ancient culture exceptional for its urban density, refinement and 
complexity. When forced migration took Yoruba peoples to the plantations 
of Cuba, Brazil and Haiti, they recombined their deities into a new 
pantheon and incorporated Catholic saints whose powers and histories 
seemed parallel. For example, some representations of the Virgin Mary 
were equated with the sweet and gentle aspect of Oshun, the goddess of 
love. In Cuba, Shango, the Yoruba thunder god, was frequently associated 
with martyred Saint Barbara, because her assassins were struck dead by 
lightning. The icons associated with the deities were also translated 
into American equivalents -- the ritual swords of Ogun, the Yoruba god 
of iron, became identified with St. Peter's iron key to heaven. While 
outwardly conforming to the religious practices of the Catholics 
surrounding them, the Yoruba in Cuba and Brazil maintained a system of 
thought that creatively reorganized their traditional religions to 
survive in a new environment.
The first altar is of Afro-Brazilian Yoruba tradition and dedicated to 
Obatala/Oxala, a saint among saints, sweet, pure and merciful, whose 
color white stands for honesty and truth. To denote unblemished honesty, 
this throne altar uses transparent white fabric draped and tied in an 
enormous bow, staffs of white metals, tin and silver, a beaded crown, 
cement columns studded with silver painted stones, scepters and swords. 
Crosses and candles denote syncretic borrowing of Catholic saints and 
symbols: Obatala is most often compared to Jesus. On an adjacent wall is 
a Nigerian Yoruba crown covered with white beads.
These altars introduce Yoruba religious iconography with sculptures for 
the deities or orisha of the large Yoruba pantheon. Each orisha oversees 
a particular realm of the moral universe and has his or her own visual 
signature, made up of characteristic colors, icons, fabrics, symbols and 
foods. The first altar illustrates how these sculptures were often 
assembled in Africa. Based on early-20th century photographs of shrines 
from the Oyo region of Nigeria a traditional altar to Shango, the fourth 
king of the Yoruba, now immortalized as the thunder god, has been 
recreated. He is represented by the oshe, a double headed axe, a symbol 
of balance, and the fiery color red. As the regulator of rules, Shango
 reminds practitioners not to lose control; doubleness also relates to 
Shango's children, the Ibeji or Spirit Twins. Symbols of his power - 
calabashes, crowns of beads, thunder rattles, as well as the Oshe Shango
 double-headed axe - announce his presence and message of God's moral 
With these works of art as a point of reference, the extensive visual 
vocabulary of the Yoruba worship in Africa is juxtaposed to that of a 
Yoruba-influenced Afro-Cuban altar where the enduring impact of these 
ancestral forms is clearly revealed. While the emblems vary and change 
with inventive Creole energy, they nevertheless span three continents 
and many centuries with remarkable consistency.
An opulent Afro-Cuba throne altar shows six orisha elevated and arranged 
on individual platforms and decorated with their appropriate colors. As 
Thompson writes, "in the richness of these shrine elaborations, Yoruba 
people experience a sense of heaven's glamour." Surrounded by canopies 
and thrones, multi-stranded necklaces of beads (mazos) dress these 
deities who appear as mysterious mounds of richly draped cloth over 
tureens containing sacred stones. In the creolization process, human 
figures were frequently abstracted of de-anthropomorphized by Africans 
in the Americans who may have been trying to protect their religion in 
the midst of a hostile environment. By rendering traditional icons as 
non-figurative, they became enigmatic and could not be attacked as 
"heathen dolls." Recalling the crack of his thunder is a baseball bat 
that has been covered with beads in Shango's red and white, red 
indicating the flash of his lighting and white his controlling calm and 
purity of character.

Symbolic assemblages: the Kongo Atlantic Altar

It is estimated that approximately 40% of the millions of Africans who 
landed in the Americas between 1500 to 1870 were from Central Africa, 
culturally influenced by the Kongo civilization. Thus Kongo traditions 
are pervasive in the Americas. Kongo beliefs and iconography are based 
on sacred protective medicines, minkisi, which are used for physical and 
social harmony and healing. Altars are found at river banks, in forests 
and cemeteries, and at other borders between worlds. They are often 
surrounded by pottery, ideographic writing and sacred medicines. The 
cyclical evolution of the soul that keeps transforming and returning is 
crucial to understanding Kongo iconography. A dramatic and heavily coded 
continuation of Kongo beliefs and icons occurs in the Southern United 
States, where Kongo-American versions of the nkisi (singular of minkisi
), or medicines of the gods, take characteristic forms.
A tree with bottles protects the household through the power of 
medicinal waters and a yard "dressed" to protect it from negative 
intrusion. The bottles of glass or plastic hang from a tree close to the 
home, protecting it from harmful spirits by the gleam of the glass, 
which attracts, captures, and disempowers evil forces like envy, 
jealousy and strife. The custom was recorded in Angola as early as 1776 
and in the Americas as early as 1791. An African antecedent to the 
bottle tree is found in the plate and branch tradition of adorning 
graves, documented in a Kongo cemetery in 1909. Porcelain plates, 
pierced through the center with tree branches reappear in grave sites in 
the South where they celebrate the dead. Bottle trees may also appear as 
part of a full yard show.
A yard show by Cornelius of Tidewater, Virginia, recreated in the 
exhibition, is presented as an environmental Kongo-American nkisi. What 
might look like assemblage of junk, or meaningless clutter is actually 
"a complex spiritual act in plural dimension." We see a house surrounded 
by bottles filled with different colored water. These "medicines" 
encircle the house, keep out evil "dogs," and are viewed as spiritual 
protection for the home. The other elements in the carefully configured 
yard shows -- fan blades, TV cathodes, twin dolls, tire planters, 
mirrors, chairs and gates -- are decoded in terms of Kongo iconography 
symbols. They are used to protect and entertain, commemorate and 
enthrone, filter and repel the powers of good and evil. These 
assemblages, composed of objects that symbolize motion, with white 
vessels and unusual wood formations, are interpreted as altars or 
"visual prayers." The theme is continued in the sequined bottles and 
"pacquets congo" used by Haitian ritual experts - in reality a Caribbean 
manifestation of Kongo minkisi, portable altars charged with flash and 

Flag altars to the ancestors

Two of the largest, most majestic altars in the exhibition are flag 
altars from the rain forest of Suriname, South America. Created by 
African maroon societies composed of self-liberated former slaves, and 
free Africans, these altars mix fragments of the art and architecture 
from the Mande, Akan and Fon/Ewe West African traditions, constantly 
reinvigorated by new arrivals, and by contact with the Amerindian 
population. Political and cultural resistance and independence are 
asserted by these distinctive maroon altars of the Mande diaspora.
The Ndjuka altar is a 12 foot tall T-cross with layers of white sheeting 
suspended from its elevation. This altar is dedicated to the ancestors 
and elders. The worship here is performed on behalf of the whole 
community. The single largest item in the exhibition, the Samara altar, 
also from Suriname, is a stately, evocative assembly of seven T-crosses 
bearing along swaths of draped and tied cloth. These flag altars are 
placed within an enclosure, decorated with palm fronds, white sand, and 
a place for offerings.
In Africa, the Mande made forked branch and clay pillar altars, which 
mimed the verticality of trees in their basic upholding gesture, 
supporting a vessel of medicine. The tree becomes a "spiritual 
ideogram," and the flag altar is an African American form of tree or 
tree-surrogate altar.

The circling of the soul and Kong medicines of God

Links are made between Afro-Cuban art and altars and their antecedent 
Kongo minkisi, portable sacred medicines of god, often called healing 
charms. In Africa, minkisi are kept in containers as diverse as shells, 
packets, ceramic vessel, wooden images, statuettes and cloth bundles. 
The most compelling Kongo minkisi are nail covered figures used for 
oathtaking and healing. In addition to their fierce attitude and 
covering of protruding blades and nails, these figures also contain 
powerful ingredients in the head and stomach cavities.
Placed in isolated rooms, corners, or crossroads, adorned with feathers, 
stones, sticks, beads, earth and iron reflecting a symbolic language of 
meaning, the altars in this gallery illustrate the symbols of Kongo 
religion in Cuba. The Guanabacoa nkisi, named for a cemetery across the 
harbor from Havana, is a simple altar made of a mound of earth, a small 
cross, a seashell and erect and bent sticks, eloquently positioned. Two 
Sarabanda nkisi are present in this exhibit - some scholars say that one 
of them represents the Creole spirit of a powerful black man who worked 
on the railways in the last century.
Modeled on his personal altar, Cuban Josщ Bedia creates a symbolic 
environment in a corner (which represents a crossroads) for the Lucero 
of Guanabacoa. The Kongo cycle-of-the-soul is represented by a wall 
painting: one side black and containing the symbols of night (moon, 
stars and comets); the other side blue, with a radiant sun, for the 
beginning and renewal of life. On the ground in the center of the altar 
and created out of a large seashell is Lucero del Mundo, this one also 
known as the Lucero de Guanabacoa. It is a guardiero, which means 
squire, assistant and guardian in the symbolic language of Kongo 
religion of Cuba. Lucero is mounted in concrete and surrounded by sticks 
and feathers that bring power. On the left is a statue of Francisco, a 
Kongo guide, and on the right is a statue of La Comisiєn India, and 
Indian guide. There is also a mbele (machete) and a large lungoa (hooked 
stick) symbolizing important aspects of Palo Monte.
Felipe Garcэa Villamil, originally from Matanzas, Cuba, is a direct 
descendant of Yoruba and Kongo priests. He is a distinguished mayombero
 (priest), master musician and ritual artist. Garcэa Villamil prepared 
an altar for the Sarabanda in the Matanzas style. Located in his closet, 
like other Kongo altars secreted in enclosures, it is full of powerful 
medicines. There, two straw hats hang in readiness for the use by the 
spirit, with a mirror-stoppered cow horn of clairvoyance (vititi mensu), 
musical instruments used in sacred ritual, and elaborate beaded artwork. 
A red flag with protective signs hangs on the wall behind the nkisi to 
protect the altar, its owner and his family from harm.
The basic Kongo cosmogram is a cross within a circle, dikenga, that is a 
symbolic chart of the voyage of the soul. As a miniature of the sun, the 
soul is thought to have four moments -- birth, efflorescence, fading and 
the return in the dawn of a coming day. Triangles, diamonds, spirals, or 
crisscrosses denote this cyclical movement. The soul, which is thought 
by the Bakongo to reside in the forehead, is often represented in 
diamond form and can be seen on many African masks. The exhibition 
includes such masks -- 19th century Punu, Teke (Tsaaye), and Chokwe 
masks, and a 20th century Vili mask ringed with feathers. In addition, a 
fully feathered Mardi gras "Wild Man" costume from New Orleans, 
reminiscent of Kongo feather masks and headdresses worn by healers, is a 
living example of the creolized Kongo traditions found in the United 

Fusion faiths: medicines of concern

Altars are often the locus of healing and moral reckoning and the four 
altars in this section demonstrate the explosion of forms and symbols 
inspired by the Yoruba art and belief in Brazil, which have fused into 
Umbanda, the largest black religion in Brazil.
An altar for Omolu (another name for Obaluaiye), the deity of 
pestilence, fever and epidemic, the bearer of moral retribution, is 
recreated by the Pai Balbino de Paula, one of Brazil's most 
distinguished Candomble priests. Earthenware bowls contain vessels with 
perforated domes. Placed in the holes are wrought iron staffs of Osanyin
, the god of herbal healing. Overturned vessels at the front of the 
altar commemorate the recent death of a follower. Used to honor the good 
who punishes with small pox, this Omolu altar is now also associated 
with scourge of AIDS. An Osanyin staff from the Nigeria, which served as 
the prototype for this Brazilian Yoruba variation, stands nearby.
The same Yoruba vocabulary is evident in a small, portable basket altar 
to Asohin, an avatar of Obaluaiye, from Puerto Rico. It contains his 
broom, which sweeps disease around the world, and earthenware vessel 
holding his stones, a dish with perforations (pestilence), spotted 
feathers of the Guinea hen, and the figure of St. Lazarus, the saint 
most often syncretized with Obaluaiye.
Umbanda, devoted to charity and mental healing, is a syncretic mix of 
Yoruba, Kongo, Catholic and Amerindian powers, medicines and practices. 
The crowning figure of Oxala/Lord Jesus, blesses all, while assembled -- 
orixa/saints, caboclos in feather dress, pretos velhos (old blacks), 
plaster busts of the departed, photos and candles -- are carefully 
arrayed. The altar is completed by cosmograms sealed in chalk circles in 
the floor -- ideograms to call down the spirit. This ecumenical symphony 
finds the Catholic twin Saints, Cosimo and Damian, standing in for 
African twin spirits.

An ultimate altar: the Atlantic Ocean

The exhibition closes with a recreation of the beach altars of Rio de 
Janeiro, built by thousands of practitioners on New Year's Eve to ask 
for blessings for the coming year. These miniature, candle-lit, personal 
altars, adorned with flowers and champagne, are scooped our of the sand 
and dedicated to Yemoja and Oshun (Goddesses of the Ocean and of Love) 
and sometimes to Ibeji (Twin Spirits). First associated with Umbanda in 
the 20's and 30's, these altars dramatize the ongoing twentieth century 
fusion of African, Christian and Native American icons and ideology. 
They are a dramatic illustration of the explosion of African American 
cultural improvisation and aesthetic creativity that insures spiritual 
and moral sustenance for Africans in the Americas for centuries.
NOTE: The Museum of African Art (593 Broadway, New York, NY 10012; 212 
966-1313) has available a comprehensive book also called Face of the 
Gods by Robert Farris Thompson which traces the iconography of the 
purest African altars from the forest hunter-gatherers to the complex 
artistic and intellectual systems of Yoruba and Kongo civilizations and 
through their creative reformulation in the Americas. The three hundred 
and thirty-six page book contains 282 color and 27 black and white 
plates. Cloth and paper editions are available and cost $70 and $39.50, 

 © 2001-2008 Евгений Варданян (*Leda)   Leda Design Studio 

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