Sacred Gowns

Eusebio Escobar may dream of a career as a fashion designer, but his current line is doing well: Haute couture Santería

Historically, nonbelievers have associated Santería with black magic and animal sacrifice. Like Haitian vodou, orisha worship has been stereotypically portrayed in European and American media as evil mumbo jumbo, the pagan rituals of an ignorant black people. But in recent years more and more non-Cubans have embraced the Afro-Cuban religion, and it has been widely acknowledged as a legitimate faith. "Santería is a very old religion; it's older than Jesus Christ," maintains Gonzalez. "We do ceremonies with plants and holy water; we divine with shells and stones. We kill animals, but when we do, we eat the meat." The religion also has an intrinsic connection to the visual and performing arts, which are incorporated into the rituals that make the deities come alive.

"There's a lot of knowledge and poetry and art in my religion, because that's the way my ancestors in Africa -- who created it -- thought of the world," says Neri Torres, a Miami-based Afro-Cuban dancer and choreographer. "They saw art as the way of being closest to God."

Today, in much the same way, Santería practitioners demonstrate their faith by wearing ceremonial clothing, cooking African dishes, and performing ritual dances and songs. "I think that what's happened in the diaspora is a faithful continuation of the fundamental philosophical and religious principles of the Yoruba," says Henry John Drewal, co-curator of "Beads, Body, and Soul," a recent exhibition at the Miami Art Museum that included examples of several centuries of Yoruba art, up to the present day. "People have remained true to those principles, but the outer form, the style and the appearance of the objects, has changed in response to new social and historical conditions.

Sparkling crowns and thick beaded ropes called masos pay tribute to the spirits
Sparkling crowns and thick beaded ropes called masos pay tribute to the spirits
A tunic honoring Shangó: Escobar's custom outfits can cost up to $1000
A tunic honoring Shangó: Escobar's custom outfits can cost up to $1000

"The Yoruba arts are a product of the creative imagination of the devotees in the religion. It remains faithful to a fundamental approach," adds Drewal, a professor of art history specializing in African and African diaspora art at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "Asha is the Yoruba word for tradition, and within that word is the word sha, to select or choose. You can decide what to keep or discard or change, but you're still working in the tradition."

Escobar gestures toward the grand urns on the household altar. "If we were in Cuba, those would just be clay bowls," he says. "In Cuba you don't see this work because they don't have fabric or anything to work with. There are a lot of artists there who could do it but they don't have materials." A few times Escobar has sent ceremonial outfits to friends back home at no charge.

While the trappings of Santería are modest in Cuba, the opposite is true in Miami, where Cuban exiles and American converts have poured the fruits of a consumer society into their faith. Escobar doubts he could ever make a living as a painter or clothing designer here, but he has been able to support himself sewing contemporary versions of garments worn by long-ago African priests. The garment maker's job is one in a local cottage industry that includes instrument makers, musicians, altar-preparers, caterers, bead artists, and metalworkers.

Previously ignored outside religious circles, the Santería arts are beginning to gain wider attention. Dancer Neri Torres organized an Afro-Cuban arts festival last month at MDCC's Wolfson campus. And the Historical Museum of Southern Florida plans to hold an exhibition that will concentrate on local examples of Afro-Cuban religious arts. Funded by the NEA, the show is to open in the fall of 2000.

"We want to try and introduce art forms that exist within the orisha community and help them reach a wider audience," says Historical Museum folklorist Stephen Stuempfle. "I don't think orisha artists necessarily want to remain private. They're interested in reaching a broader audience. There's a general feeling about wanting the religion to be more widely and better understood. Although most people are not aware of it, this is certainly one of the largest artistic communities in the area."

Ezekiel Gonzalez sits at a workshop table covered with jars of plastic and glass beads, stringing a thick rope in shades of blue. He is making a maso, the heavy cluster of beads that is draped over a throne. "It's like when a woman puts on necklaces to dress herself up and look beautiful," says Gonzalez, who wears sweat pants and a T-shirt. "We adorn the orishas the same way."

At his sewing machine, Escobar continues to work on the suit featuring the colors of Shangó. As if the fiery god were announcing his presence, a furious summer storm gathers. Both men simultaneously cross themselves at each clap of thunder. Gonzalez peers over at Escobar's fabric, complimenting the design. Seeing the new ceremonial tunic reminds him of his own initiation 30 years ago in Havana. "Things have changed a lot, too much," he says. "I remember when I had my suit made, it cost 25 cents. It was modest, but it was made with imagination. They glued on some shells, some coral, whatever they could find outdoors. When I became initiated, [the total] cost was $12. Now it can cost thousands of dollars here."

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