Sacred Art

Cuba's saints and santeros are show-stealers

 “Prayers for Santos and Orishas,” a striking photography show at Centro Cultural Español, peels back the veil on contemporary religious life in Cuba by depicting in a rare light the devotional soul of the island.

The three-part exhibit includes 40 black-and-white pictures by photographers Gonzalo González, Raúl Cañibano, and Humberto Mayol, all of whom reside in Havana and whose works have never been displayed here before.

Curated by Guillermo Castellanos Simons and Silvia Dorfsman, the show captures the richness of Cuba's myriad syncretic religious cults based on West African religions. Slaves who worked on sugar plantations during the colonial period camouflaged their deities with the Catholic saints to preserve their faith.

González depicts two kinds of worship: religious (these  steps front an old Havana church) and political (the  ubiquitous Che, right)
González depicts two kinds of worship: religious (these steps front an old Havana church) and political (the ubiquitous Che, right)

Details

“Prayers for Saints and Orishas”: Through June 29. Centro Cultural Español, 800 Douglas Rd, Ste 170, Coral Gables; 305-448-9677, www.ccemiami.org.

The images reveal a melting pot of belief systems in which practitioners thrive despite once having been stridently opposed by the Castro regime.

González's Plegarias Cubanas focuses on the veneration of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patron saint and a cultural icon. Affectionately referred to as "Cachita" by many, the brown-skinned virgin is identified with Ochun, the spirit-goddess of the river who reigns over love, intimacy, beauty, and wealth in the Yoruba Pantheon. The artist's photographs depict the Catholic procession in Havana in which worshipers carry the saint's statue through streets in scenes often theatrical in nature.

One photo features the emblematic picture of La Caridad and "los tres Juanes" -- the trio of Creole slaves to whom she first appeared in the 1600s -- on a kite held by a child overhead like an umbrella to block the sun. The sun's rays dramatically peek through the saint's ornate gown, eclipsing the youngster in a shadowy foreground.

In another work a girl wearing a crown and a cape, not unlike Cachita herself, poses with a bouquet of yellow roses clutched to her chest as the sun glints off her headpiece, creating a halo effect. Behind her, a girl clad in angel wings skips joyfully in the midst of a throng.

Some of González's more intimate photographs include portraits of an altar boy carrying a large crucifix and wearing an old-fashioned frock as he solemnly weaves through the crowd, and a nun slipping a boy a Communion wafer through a gap in a chainlink fence. The latter seems a compelling metaphor for the oppression Cuban Catholics experienced in past years.

The tension between the island's religious practices and political ideology pops up distinctly in a work depicting an elderly woman panhandling on the marble steps of an old Havana church. González cropped the photograph to reveal the begging woman at the lower left of the image. Her prosthetic leg's plastic flesh is decomposing from wear, the metal bones rusting through. Around her, headless people walk by as if she were a ghost. A man hovering nearby sports a Che Guevara T-shirt, as if to remind her of the only religion that counts.

For her part, Cachita might be mocking the party line from on high, because there is a La Virgen Milagrosa supermarket, named in honor of La Caridad, just a block east of this exhibit.

Some of the more powerful images on display appear in Cañibano's Fe por San Lazaro, offering a visceral essay about the penitents who make the pilgrimage to Ermita del Rincón, San Lazaro's sanctuary in Santiago de Las Vegas, each December 17, the saint's day. Found in most Cuban homes, San Lazaro is a strict product of religious syncretism on the island, where he is also known in Santería as Babalu Aye.

While the Church officially recognizes Lazarus as Mary and Martha's brother who was resurrected by Christ, Cubans venerate him according to a parable in the Gospel of Saint Luke, wherein the figure is a ragged beggar on crutches faithfully followed by two dogs. In Cuba he is the healer and protector of the destitute and infirm. Devotees often sacrifice themselves physically, praying the saint will grant a miracle in return.

Cañibano's pictures exude a cinematic vibe and are often closely cropped to convey his subject's ardent sense of sacrifice and humility.

One disturbing photo shows a closeup of a worshiper from the waist down. The man wears shorts, and his knees are scraped raw from him crawling for miles on the asphalt to San Lazaro's shrine. The road beneath him is blood-spattered, and to his left lie the mummified remains of a small dog.

Other pictures feature men wearing sack cloth -- a symbol of the saint's poverty -- and dragging cinder blocks and huge stones chained to their ankles; a man inching along on his knees as he carries a baby to be blessed; a santera collapsed inside the shrine, overcome by the spirit of the saint; and a closeup of a cross-eyed black man waving what appears to be a Babalu Aye Pez dispenser.

In one of the most potent pieces in the show, Cañibano captures a weather-beaten disciple squatting over a makeshift cardboard altar outside El Rincón. He is collecting alms from passersby. Cloaked only in a burlap vest and pants and sporting a wild bramble of fur on his chin, the man seems to take on the mien of San Lazaro himself, his face framed in the light of candles flickering in the tattered box below.

Mayol's Los Santos de la Calle (Street Saints) series places the spectator directly inside the secretive world of santeros and paleros. His works depict priests and priestesses standing in front of altars in their homes or performing rituals for their godchildren. The photographer was able to gain entrance to sacred ceremonies and document Afro-Cuban spiritual rites and practices usually hidden from those who are not initiates.

One photo shows a young girl wrapped in a white shawl as her padrino (godfather) sprays a mouthful of rum on her head during a cleansing, while El Ojo Todo Poderoso (the all-seeing eye) seems to gaze at the viewer from a far corner of the room.

Mayol's fantastic images capture a world of magic and the occult that sears itself into the consciousness. In another work, an old palero is caught in mid-machete swing as the head of a sacrificed goat flops like a bag of cement near his bare feet.

For anyone curious about Cuba's profound and enduring spiritual roots, this authentic window into the island's beguiling culture is an offering that peels the lids off the eyes.

"Prayers for Saints and Orishas" will feature a concert by Jude Papaloko and Loray Mistik on Friday, June 29, at 8:00 p.m., followed by a closing reception for the show.

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