Long before Ricky Martin was a glimmer in his mother's eye, real and imaginary Latins were insinuating themselves into the American psyche. Take Babalu Aye. Thanks to Cuban entertainer Desi Arnaz (the actor/singer who played the beleaguered Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy), who frequently was seen banging a drum and bellowing the song "Babalu!" on the Fifties sitcom, Anglos learned the word. No matter that they didn't understand Arnaz was honoring a deity (orisha) in the Afro-Cuban religion Santería. "He was the first orisha to cross over into American pop culture," says artist Carlos Suarez de Jesus, about Babalu Aye. "Now there's a Babalu Aye restaurant in Kansas City, and one in San Francisco. There's stuff all over the place."
In the blend of Catholic and African beliefs, Babalu Aye is patron saint of the ill and downtrodden. His Catholic equivalent is Saint Lazarus. Clad in purple, Babalu Aye hobbles around on crutches, has legs covered with festering sores, and hangs out with a pack of dogs. But Suarez says Babalu is a great guy even though he resembles an aged homeless person, and could be viewed as "really scary." He is so wonderful, in fact, that December 17 in Cuba is celebrated as Babalu Aye day, when flowers, food, prayer, music, and dance are offered to the orisha. (Actually each Santería orisha has its own day of reverence on the island.)
For the past three years, also on that date, Suarez and his creative colleagues have paid a stateside tribute to "Baba," as they like to call him. As Experimental Art Lab, they used to inhabit a warehouse near the Palmetto Expressway and Bird Road. This year the collective, renamed lab6, moved to a roomy studio and gallery space in Little Havana, where they will recognize the righteous saint with A Post Modern Tribute to Babalu Aye.
"He's so important to the whole Hispanic community," Suarez explains. "We like the energy he represents. We want to talk about the influence he's had." Much more than chatting will take place, however. Several conceptual artists including Suarez, his wife Vivian Marthell, Jorge Arango, Carlos Alves, Delfin Chirino, and Maria Sarlat will display their mixed-media installations that include modernized allegorical altars inspired by Baba. Iroko Afro-Cuban Dance Theater will perform colorfully costumed dances traditionally associated with the saint. Ritual batá drummers will show off their rhythmic skills. And a Baba Bazaar will feature artist-created souvenirs, such as flags that read "Babalu Aye, Baby!"
Suarez assures that cynical artists are not poking fun at serious religious beliefs. "We're paying tribute. What we're going to try not to do is represent him in an overly traditional way," he notes, referring to the saintly symbols. "Hence the term postmodern. For example, you might see Barney the dinosaur as one of his dogs. You'll see a giant pair of crutches."
The helpful saint and his accouterments seem an appropriate metaphor for the distressed area riddled with storefront churches and botánicas in which lab6 is located. More than snooty collectors, the artists hope to attract neighborhood denizens, the people who frequent the dollar store on the corner, where Babalu Aye beads are nestled on shelves next to soap and nail polish. The group will donate a portion of the evening's proceeds to a nearby charity.
"We want to provoke thought," Suarez says, "and have people come together in a positive way. We want them to have a good time and learn about Babalu Aye in a fun way."