An Anthropological Interpretation of Santeria Through Sculpture

During the past years the work I have developed as a sculptor investigated con- ceptual juxtapositions of traditional symbols, icons and rituals with contempo- rary abstract forms. A significant number of my sculptures are within a reper- toire that combines anthropological investigation with salient and current art concerns.

These concerns coupled with my Caribbean background have led me to pursue this installation, which consists of eight steel sculptures with accompanying altars. These altars depict key figures of the Santería religion in America. My intent is to aesthetically examine certain aspects of this religion’s pantheon and to explore the beauty of its iconography.

When African slaves were transported to the New World they maintained a spiritual tradition which made an indelible mark on the culture of Brazil, various islands in the Caribbean, and more recently the United States of America. Santería has had a noticeable impact on contemporary New York art and society through the music of Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria; the visual art of Wilfredo Lam, Jorge Soto and Charles Abramson; and the historical and anthro- pological research and writings of Robert Farris Thompson, Professor at Yale University, who are among many others that have pursued this area of investi- gation.

In the Santería religion Youruba deities were fused with certain Catholic saints and these were richly celebrated with music, dance and storytelling. The old European art of carving and painting wood figurines of saints flourished concur- rently in the Caribbean. Santo-making was to flourish within the colonial folk tradition. Such saints were carved by hand by descendants of blacks, Indians

and Europeans. An immense and varied body of “santos” fashioned in poly- chrome wood emerged throughout the years.

Although I am not a member of the Yoruba religion, many of its elements are visible in a variety of artistic expression contained in my cultural heritage. In order to develop an understanding of its doctrines and rituals, I have invited two of its initiates to participate in the exhibition: Charles Abramson, responsible for creating the altarpieces for each image; and Cynthia Turner, who has written the documentation explaining the iconography of each orisha/saint. In addition, Robert Farris Thompson, Professor of Afro-American Art History at Yale Univer- sity and Master of Timothy Dwight College, has kindly agreed to write an intro- ductory essay to this catalog. All of the above are complemented by a short essay on the santo-making tradition in Puerto Rico by Susana Torruella Leval, curator of MoCHA, the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art.

This installation constitutes an enormous challenge for me in that it directly ties my cultural roots to aesthetic preoccupations. Unlike my prior work, which is primarily abstract in nature, I have consciously chosen to use the human figure as the central source of inspiration from which to develop an artistic interpreta- tion of Santería, a fascinating African religion that has been an inspiration to many.

Thanks to: Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Murillo… and Zoilo Cajigas

Jorge Luis Rodriguez, 1985