As you might guess, this post is about pictures. But it might not be what you expect. I wasn’t exactly sure what I could say about this remarkable collection, compliments of the photographers at Flickr, that would speak any more eloquently than they do by themselves. But I am going to try. I want to ask some questions about what one sees when viewing these images, and the kinds of responses that they evoke. It might be that in the seeing, they become more than just pictures. Let me explain.
Although the images here are not especially complicated, there is something about them that warrants further observation. Seeming relaxed and natural, these women exhibit themselves with the kind of attitude that declares, why yes, here I am, this is me. It is at best a study in self-representation that achieves an aesthetic ideal. And it strikes me that there is something about these portraits that is suggestive of Africana spiritualities. It’s not just that some of the women are wearing the traditional colors of the orisha, the ethereal beings of Lucumi culture in Cuba. It is more that they seem to summon forth an affirming aspect that speaks indelibly to the forms that Spirit might take when inhabiting physical bodies. Here we have a mix of mundane and divine presence; and I believe that there is something important in this.
As a student of black religions, I cannot help but to bring my academic indoctrination to this place, and my focus shifts to the resplendent beadwork that adorns these women’s outfits. They are indicative of the elekes, derived from the Yoruba sacred arts, here embellishing the traditional Cuban woman’s costume. There’s an amber-gold and coral necklace reminiscent of Oshun, the orisha that rules sweetness and all things of rich feeling and worth; there are the blue and crystalline patterns of Yemaya, the ever-generous Mother and queen of the sea; and there are the pristine white beads associated with the camino of Obatala whose effulgence proclaims the grace of Our Lady of Mercy. These colors reveal the nature and character of the great avatars of the Afro-Cuban religions, even as they inscribe fulsome models of womanhood upon the social text. The gender attributes of the orisha also express the range of possibilities that can exist between culturally normative qualities of femaleness and that which is exemplified by divine beings in physical form. For those who can read the material signs that bear witness to this spiritual vocabulary, it is instructive.
How often, when we think of God, do we imagine a being who takes human form? And if we do, what are the representations that are most appealing to us? Which pictures and images offer the truest likeness for our expectations? I began to think about the religious art of the world and I wondered, is there a space in that domain for women of color? If so, is it too much of a stretch for us to see these women as models for the Divine feminine, as archetypal manifestations of the Goddess? Or is an image just an image, just as a cigar is only a cigar, something to enjoy, but nothing more, without greater meaning or significance?
Of course, in most of the esteemed religious traditions of the world, there is recognition of the power that is constituted by the woman’s form. Artistic images of the embodied female are auspicious, even holy. When the image of the woman is believed to offer sacred meaning, as with so many religiously-inspired sculptures and paintings, it might convey an intangible quality, evoking a kind of feeling within ourselves. There is an engagement. Whether we are witness to the serene piety of Mother Mary, or the mystical, generative power of the cosmic Shakti, we are deeply affected by visual apprehensions of the Divine feminine, and we bring that reflection back to ourselves. But I wonder how many of us also affirm the darker forms of the Goddess – She who possesses a brown body or a creole visage – the black woman, apotheosized, beatified, and idealized in a sacred effigy?
God as a Black woman? She does exist, although unknown to many, but it is not for lack of visual resources that we do not see Her more often. That which becomes sacred is always present, and for some, Spirit materializes in the physical realm as a mirror of the self. She might be conceived as an elemental force of nature, or admired as Sophia, the feminine aspect of God, or simply respected as a universalized principle, as with the Egyptian Auset (Isis). This is perhaps why images and representations of the Divine are deemed to be non-controversial within most African and African-derived religions: it is understood in these traditions that the vitality of a form that is considered sacred is ascertained primarily in reference to the culture and values of the group for whom it functions. And in Africana religions, there is added value given to the feminine.
Although contemporary standards of race and gender complicate representations of womanhood, appearing as they do in popular media, advertising, and other visual domains, Africana spiritualities have forged a distinctive consciousness by which female beauty and power are articulated in inventive ways both within and outside of the religious system. Historically, the cultures of resistance that forged African-based theologies also brought forth an “oppositional gaze” whereby the objectification and dehumanization of women so prevalent in the larger social environment was thwarted and reoriented toward alternative practices of looking at and seeing the female. In a number of these religions – and here I include Africana religions of the Caribbean such as Lucumi (Santeria), Shango, and Vodou, as well as New World religions such as Candomble – idealized representations of the gendered and raced body challenge and critique the norms of the dominant order, its notions of womanhood, beauty, and its understandings of divinity. Aesthetic perspectives, in many cases, are drawn from the productive ritual sites and spaces in which spirituality is enacted. In this regard Africana religions have addressed issues of human subjectivity time and time again, and with dynamic immediacy, in the sacramental traditions of trance possession – the extraordinary transformation that occurs when invisible spiritual beings incarnate within (visible) human bodies. This is where the image of God comes into form, as it were. Spirit possession is, of course, the ritual activity par excellent in many African-derived religions.
Spirit embodiment is an exquisitely creative kind of manifestation, a style of liturgy and personal devotion which holds, as its basic organizing principle, the fact that a divine being can enter physical time and space and move into visual existence by way of mythopoetic invocation, projecting the life energy known as ashe through voice, rhythm, and movement, into a human body. Call it a theophanic mediation of the ancestral world and the realm of the human family and its earthly communities, but it is through this spectacular performance that physicalness is instantiated in divine-human encounters that model ways of living and being. In these actions, the force of spiritual presence is truly experienced, truly felt, and paradoxically, truly revealed via the instrumental consciousness of a human being, who becomes truly transparent. When “feminine” beings possess sex-specific female bodies, the ordinary woman becomes the agent by the Divine is contained in the most mundane of vehicles, as the distance between the limited embodied self and the infinite immateriality of spirit is resolved, albeit in ways that are strange, mysterious, and occulted.
Throughout the Atlantic diaspora, religious imagery and the depictions of the female divine in Africana religions are known for their subversive reformulations of the gender stereotype of females as weak, subordinate, and passive. The creative interpretations of womanhood in these traditions become culturally significant for their rejection of conventional definitions of what “woman” is, does, and stands for, in favor of more complex, multilayered models. Under slavery, where gender roles and meanings were informed by African ideas and aesthetics, but ascribed by the social institutions and arrangements of New World colonial regimes, notions of femaleness were often conjoined with maternal expressions. According to these conventions, female deities could be associated with traditional spheres of domestic authority, such as mothering, herbal arts, and healing. On the other hand, also in these contexts, resistance to slavery affirmed models of militancy and martial power, also recast in feminine forms. In Haiti, for example, divine motherhood was epitomized in representations of the loa Ezili Danto, the stalwart patroness of the land, whose embodiment of gender valorized the trope of the powerful warrior-woman who stands in fierce devotion to and protection of her child. This particular orientation to womanhood is reformulated elsewhere in the New World where Spirit manifests as the hard edged, independent female, re-imagined as the tough single mother who overcomes adversity and exploitation by strength of will, for instance, with the biblical slave woman Hagar, who is embraced by Christian womanists in the United States. Finally, one should not overlook the illustrious cohort of black and brown Madonnas in the pantheon that includes the so-called folk goddesses of Western Christianity, from Sara la Kali to Nuestra Senora de Guadeloupe, who reflect, as brilliant icons, the rich, diverse elements of New World womanhood that articulate multiple feminine displays of Spirit. Their images are the conduit and the bridge between transcendent ideals and the immanent form, a real convergence of body and soul.
…I did not want to wander too far away from these images. In looking at them I wondered how they would be looked at, and whether they would be evaluated according to current practices of representation, and whether the seeing of these beautiful women would be impacted by the processes of judgment that corrupt the gaze, thus making the pleasure of spectatorship adulterated and impure. There is, of course, a longstanding correlation between the oppression of women and their visual representations in cultural production. The valences of oppression vary according to the specific ideological configurations of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality in any given society. Certainly, images of black and brown female bodies in contemporary media are used to perpetuate division, in the ways that gender and racial discrimination are used adjudicate human worth, according to the binaries of superior/inferior, better than/less than, good/bad, moral/immoral, etc. The associations between racism, sexism, and womanhood are utilized most frequently to service the production and consumption of images as by-products of the virulent excesses of late-stage capitalism. It is difficult to separate these strands when looking at images of women, and especially women of color, as there is no end to the spectacle of the woman’s body and its violent objectification and hyper sexualization in art, film, literature, and other areas of culture. So, our judgments of these black and brown women will be inevitably shaped by things like skin color, body type, and so forth – this is the stuff by which aesthetic evaluations are made. But how does the visual meaning shift when the object spills into the sacred area, away from the profane realm? In this business we pay attention to the occurrence of spirituality in the vernacular, in the everyday experiences where religion might be embedded in minute displays of a life’s story, whether in a moment, or in a picture. Without the benefit of full context, it might be difficult to interpret, let alone appreciate, these photos. We should aware of the conditions under which the images were created and adopted.
So I wondered about the subjects of these pictures. Who are these women? What kind of lives do they live? Are the delighted smiles coaxed to their mouths solely by the insistence of the camera’s lens, or by the taste of a fat fresh Cohiba? They go nameless, their anonymity negotiated at the behest or discretion of the photographers, mainly mostly American and European travelers, denizens of the tightly regulated tourist industry in Cuba. While some of these ladies appear to be just sitting, content, watching the curious passersby watch them, others are busy at work, selling table wares along with other street merchants, some offering divination services as fortune-tellers and card readers. All of the images are probably vended; we know that these are still hard times in Havana, and no doubt in exchange for a nicely styled, photogenic posture, a modest gratuity was expected and paid according to the manner in which baksheesh is negotiated according to local traditions. So all is well, and here they are.
I do think that these pictures speak boldly about self-representation by women of color, and about gender, and religion, and about beauty. But what I like most about them is that they simply reflect back what is there. Look closely, and you might detect something there, too: a harbinger of the Spirit, a different form of divinity, a feminine image of God in a woman’s body.