Beautiful women with Cigars

Cuban woman smoking cigar
credit: basiajago

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.

two women cigar
credit: klawd

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.

Friendly Smile
credit: ashour rehana

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?

credit: ana tennis

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?

credit: kelly lynn

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.

cubawam1Although 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.

credit: erik anderson

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.

credit: sven dreesbach

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.

CigarLady 1
credit: michael vincent miller

…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.

credit: peter keller

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.

Household God

Have you heard of the orisha Elegba? image of eshu via cae2k.comChances are you know someone who has, for he is one of the most popular avatars in the African diaspora today. Perhaps you have glimpsed him while walking through a doorway, by the threshold, or near a corner. Or you might have seen him in action, directing the illuminating flow of light into divination spaces. His energy is compounded in works of magic, since he coordinates access to ashe, the essential ingredient and subtle impetus that makes things happen. He is called the opener of roads, the guardian of gates, the master of crossroads. And while there are many, many, stories about the personifications of Elegba in this world, it seems that he operates both within and outside of the realms of time and space, for he attains status as a force, a principle, a concept – even though he looks just like a bodyless head.

image of eshu with beads

Eshu, as he is also known by practitioners in the traditions of Santeria, Regla de Ocha, Ifa, and other Lucumi styles in the United States, is a compelling image. Unadorned, he is aniconic, but we have imagined him in multiple designs over the ages, most recently rendered as a dense, concrete mound, with a cone shaped face and cowrie shells for eyes and mouth. While his basic physical form is abstract, his representations reflect a prism of varied characteristics and attributes. As Eshu Laroye, he governs messages and communication. As Eshu Alabwana, he is a lonely hermit and guide of souls. As Eshu Beleke, he is the divine but sometimes naughty child. And so it goes. For Eshu, there are as many aspects to his personality as there are paths to the energy he embodies, all reconciled in this spare, material habitus. Archeologists have discovered laterite versions of Elegba dating back some 400 years, and legends of his replication into two hundred parts of himself circulated widely in nineteenth century Cuba, where he was venerated by enslaved Yoruba and creole devotees. I have been collecting internet images of Eshu for a much shorter time period. I like the solidness of these compact, wonderful beings, the way they exhibit a kind of endogenous artistry that gives expression to vast meanings and metaphysical qualities, depending on whether and how they are brought to life. making eshuIn ceremonial contexts Eshu is often the first to be saluted, and in religious rituals he is a powerful and essential spirit ally. But Eshu is not sectarian, by any means. Easygoing and gregarious, he can be found mingling with Christian saints, hanging out with New Age icons, slumming with Pagan deities. In the home, he holds a place of honor on family altars, and always near openings and passages, because as the saying goes, he makes the way. It is remarkable to see how fluidly Eshu travels across the margins of ethnicity, faith, and spiritual orientation. And why not? He rules all boundaries, so it is well within his purview to cast himself as a border dweller. We have seen him displayed as a valuable work of art on auction websites, for sale at online botanicas, and exhibited with museum pieces in places like Oslo, Norway. Eleggua2005He might be the odd fellow amidst other religious idols, but I believe that his stone faced itutu, or coolness, perfectly complements the serene asceticism of the Buddharupa or the wheeling kinesthetics of Shiva Nataraja. Today, Eshu is something of a household god in all domains of necessity, be they cultural, educational, medical, judicial, or magical, for he is unassuming, as content on a living room altar as he is in the grandest of shrines. Ibarago Moyuba, Eshu.

I am grateful for the awesome scholarship of Patrick Polk and heartily endorse his book on material religion, Botanica Los Angeles: Latino Popular Religious Art in the City of Angels (2005)

Voodoo Tropes: Bizarre Hollywood Religion

Call me hopelessly naive, but wouldn’t you jump to see a blockbuster film starring Bela Legosi and John Carradine called VOODOO MAN? I mean, how bad could it be? Maybe we might learn something about Africana religions. Or maybe we can see what this Voodoo thing is that’s so fascinating. What could go wrong?

Well, plenty, and if you watched the movie trailer, you are probably thinking, what the hell was that? That clip seems as unfathomable as this one here:

Warning: I cannot explain what this movie is about

Now let’s try to deconstruct this. It’s pretty awful, even though it comes about twenty years after the first film, and the production values are superior. Sure, you want to laugh, but maybe you don’t know whether you should be laughing or not. But it’s no joke – this is not a comedy.  So what are they trying to say? The ominous jungle music, white women being violated, tough men with guns, dolls full of pins, king crab legs falling from the trees, and danger! slimy human-eating cobra plants and Boris Karloff. This must have something to do with Voodoo, right?

white zombie

When I looked into the history of Voodoo-themed films in the United States I was surprised to find that scholarship had generally overlooked these contributions to American cinema. It could be that Voodoo is not perceived as a viable religion, and some find it ridiculous to associate such nonsense with sacred things. Despite the fact that black films and filmmakers willingly dabbled in the genre, and at least one early Voodoo film was written by an African American, Religion scholars focus on Christianity and the churches when analyzing film. imgresOn the other hand, many prefer the antipathetic stand-in for embodied African spirituality, the zombie (from the Kikongo nzambi, which translates as “god” or “spirit-being.”) In fact, Zombie Studies is offered as a legitimate field of research by some academics, to the disgust of conservatives and evangelicals everywhere. So it is noteworthy that the earliest Hollywood movie to embrace the mythologies of Voodoo was Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, released by United Artists in 1932. And why was White Zombie such a big deal? For one thing, it was the first film to explicitly reference African-derived religions in the West, albeit in a stupid and contrived manner. But most significantly, the film introduced theater audiences to “Voodoo” as a very real, proximate, religious entity, thereby tapping into the visceral anxieties of American citizens at the time. And what could be better for the culture industry than a meme that provided stimulus to the emerging horror-story form, complete with a repertoire of elements from an imaginary religion upon which American fears and fantasies could be projected? Am I ruining the fun? Let me explain.

To understand the significance of the early film representations of  Voodoo we must shift our gaze to the broader historical context in which these ideas developed. Between the years 1932 and 1962, some twenty-four Hollywood movies were released with the word “Voodoo” or “Zombie” in their titles. Assuming that these projects would result in box office gold, film creators merged “Voodoo” with arbitrary subjects, resulting in oddly juxtaposed titles like Voodoo Village, Voodoo Drums, Voodoo Tiger, Voodoo Puppies, and others (Okay I made that last one up).

Voodoo_Tiger_poster The point is that “Voodoo” as a trope entered the cinematic lexicon at a particular moment in history – perhaps 1930 or 1931 – and thereafter took off as a self-perpetuating idea. Why? Well, the Motion Picture Code was put in place during these years, and horror film makers faced new restrictive guidelines for their unwholesome entertainment products. 1931 was also an inauspicious time in domestic and foreign matters, for the United States was facing a prolonged economic crisis, Hoovervilles had become fixtures in many major cities, and the military was embroiled in its 19th foreign intervention since the turn of the century – in Haiti of all places. And here is where we can pinpoint the origins of Voodoo as a discursive category. As all good students of history know, every military adventure, whether a nasty and brutish invasion for regime change, or an out-and-out shock-and-awe event for rapid dominance, requires the veneer of public support. In this case the military apparatus evoked the specter of menace with a brilliant strategy: they identified the threat of a malevolent, supernatural, black-faced enemy. And just to be sure that Americans were properly informed about the dangerous situation on the ground in one of the Caribbean’s most troubled political economies, a New York Times correspondent by the name of William Buehler Seabrook was dispatched to report on the “culture of the natives,” which he published in a book called The Magic Island (1929). Much has been written about Seabrook’s literary folly that I won’t repeat here. Suffice to say that this ugly little tome, many believe, was singlehandedly responsible for the hardening of negative social attitudes towards African diaspora religions, crudely lumped together under the rubric of “Voodoo.” Seabrook’s graphic descriptions of Vodou ceremonialism bore little resemblance to the actual ancestral religious practices of Afro-Haitians. But since The Magic Island was considered such an important eyewitness account, it is not surprising that the very first Hollywood venture to dramatize “Voodoo” would draw upon its ethnographic commentary as a primary source, and assimilate the text directly into the narrative structure of the horror format, with all of its fantastic and nightmarish imaginaries.

voodoo village posterThe transformation of Haitian Vodou into Hollywood Voodoo was a process that involved the complicity of culture producers, the media, the occupying regime, the American government, the military, the church, and foreign corporate stakeholders. It was the inevitable outcome of relentless hostility and demonization of African spirituality that had begun centuries earlier, at the onset of a successful slave revolution in Haiti and subsequent national independence. No one, however, could have predicted the enormous commercial potential of the sensational fictions of Voodoo. How else, except at the movies, could one vicariously consume – without risk – in such an exciting mixture of magic, violence, animated brown bodies, and the hazards of physical survival in jungle environments? And where else could such a complete persecution of an indigenous African spirituality be so artfully re-imagined and repackaged as a new brand, exported as a commodity, and offered to the world as a virtual religion? My guess is that no one had actually seen anything like this in Haiti at the time, a struggling, traumatized nation in resistance to Marine occupation and the vise grip of foreign control, unless you stumbled into a Vodou ceremony stone drunk, bereft and paranoid, which is precisely how William Seabrook, lost generation journalist, drug addict, proud cannibal, and (eventual) psychotic, found himself, an authority on African religions in the western hemisphere.

curse of the voodooAlthough I struggle to find something intellectually defensible to say about these movies, I am glad for the insights they provide for the critical consumer of film into the uses of “Voodoo” as cultural propaganda. And while we haven’t discussed the later decades of the twentieth century, when Voodoo-themed films reached their nadir with gems like Black Voodoo Exorcist and Voodoo Heartbeat, leave it to James Bond to redeem the genre with film number eight of the Bond franchise, the racially subversive blaxploitation hybrid Live and Let Die (1973). In this movie, once and for all, the Voodoo trope is immortalized by casting the civilizing presence of the gentleman assassin Bond against the deadly powers of Voodoo and its villainous henchmen. And because we understand how this thing works, we recognize sorcery and superstition as the true oppressors of the island natives, and not poverty, economic exploitation, and organized crime (mediated with coolness by Yaphet Kotto, as a smooth af code-switching drug lord). However, unlike the invasion of Haiti in 1915, this Marine does not stay to occupy, but instead bombs the shit out of the island, presumably in revenge for the threatened rape of his white woman’s pristine land by a gyrating witch doctor who wields a long, dark, writhing penis serpent while in trance (in a fine signifying performance). In the end, Voodoo is vanquished, or is it?Live-and-Let-Die-Polo-Neck…hard to tell, as in the final frames we see the crazy black psychopomp aboard a speeding train, propped up on the engine’s helm and laughing wildly, probably on his way to another date with death.

The cultural history of Africana religions in the New World (including Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santeria, and American Hoodoo) and their representation in popular culture and film can be a rich and illuminating field of study. However, in the realms of contemporary virtual media, performed “reality,” and digital simulation, it can be challenging to determine what is authentic and what is not. And while some of us may find most depictions of African-derived religions on film to be utterly offensive to our sensibilities owing to their racist, xenophobic, and misogynist bent, they are a valuable index for gauging the production of culture as well as the concomitant anxieties and interests that accompany cultural products in real-time. But there is a another issue at stake. Representations of religion on film have become the perennial means by which the imperial American regime articulates its missionary rationale in the world, by pitting the forces of civilization and morality against the barbaric, non-Christian Other.BGDAD1 What makes “Voodoo” distinct is its formation in an historical moment when the military agents of the organized persecution of a religion elided their own presence and actions by identifying themselves as the putative victims of the Voodoo horror, its depraved insurgents, and their wartime atrocities. And although these specific associations between Africana religions like Vodou and the virtual religion of Hollywood Voodoo are less immediate now, similar themes will be revisited by generations far removed from its sources, long past the expiration dates of its provenance in Haiti during the occupation. Looking ahead towards the final decades of the twentieth century, we see the cycle complete itself, and begin again. Look, quick! For Hollywood has found itself another bizarre religion! Consider, if you will, the film treatment of contemporary Muslim subjects. While not yet approaching the extremes of cinematic horror, one can imagine the fertile possibilities, perhaps in the insidious coding of the phony gods ‘n false prophets theme or the religion-of-superstitious-fanatics genre, or perhaps re-spun more creatively into a “jinn-possessed blood lusting jihadi zombie” meme. That might be interesting. So look closely, and you might even find the sodden remnants of the Hollywood Voodoo trope draped over movie depictions of Islam like a filthy blanket – rank, despicable, but strangely familiar.

The Buddha in the Botanica

Many years ago I came upon an interesting presence while visiting El Cobre, a village in southeastern Cuba. Translated simply as “Copper,” El Cobre is well known for its 19th century mining concerns, but even more famously, it is the site of the national basilica for the luminous patron saint of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity. But that is not what interested me. In the house where I stayed, tucked away in a corner, was a small boveda – a domestic altar for the ancestors. Amidst the clutter and bric-a-brac of candles, baby dolls, water glasses and other Santerismo items sat a tiny statue of a serene, reclining Buddha. budaWhen I asked why he was there, virtually surrounded by a contingent of foreign gods, the host for our group laughed and said, “why not? There were lots of Chinese down here.” Well yes, there were lots of Chinese down there. Many were long gone, others were not, and some apparently lived between the spaces of the spirit realm and the world of the living. And so I began to think about the overlapping experiences of Asian and African people, when indentured Chinese workers came to work the mines alongside of African slaves in El Cobre, all the way to the present, with Buddhist saints taking inconspicuous residence on Afro-Cuban altars alongside the orishas. images-2I want to believe that the conditions of labor and sorrow endured by these people allowed for generative, though tenuous, opportunities to share in their common humanity. Even if the sharing between them only consisted of a gesture of support; a simple expression of brotherhood; or an offer of help. Real multiculturalism, we are told, takes hold with the purposeful engagement of difference, even under the most dire of circumstances. Whether inhabited by African, Anglo, Native, Asian, or Latino, the cultures of the New World are invariably, intensely, indubitably multi-racial and multi-ethnic. And as we look more closely at Hoodoo and other magical traditions in the United States, we recognize an encompassing property: the coexistence of multiple cultural elements, sometimes dissimilar, juxtaposed, channeled into an exquisitely balanced and harmonious mix. While debates rage about the roots and origins of “real” Hoodoo, we might do well to consider the circumstances under which spiritual interactions defy linear assumptions of how religious and magical systems come to be. For it is there, lingering within the private, personal spaces where traditions are practiced, that the “real” condensation of meaning and power can animate the lives of ordinary persons – even by placing a dusty figurine of the Buddha on the bottom of a shelf.  buda oilThe engineering of magical efficacy knows no color, no race. It’s like one of cardinal rules of Hoodoo says: if you don’t work, you’re outta here! But my story today is about the materiality of magical power. And so, I wonder, what might a being who takes the appearance of a squat, bald, rotund Asian have to offer, particularly when conjoined with the fortified, hard-working spirit icons of the African diaspora?

What does this guy do, anyway?lucky buddha bottl In most contemporary botanicas, a startling variety of Asian sourced spirits and powers beckons the consumer. And it’s not just statues. You can find numerous Buddha-themed products, floor washes, candles, oils and incense. Here, the pristine philosophical concerns of Eastern religions are crudely sublimated to the purposes of mass marketing. The public display of Asian icons and saints in the institutional settings of Hoodoo and Conjure tells us something about the dialogues that occur between invisible powers when they assume visible forms. Take Hotei, for example. He is a fixture of New Age cultures, a jolly-looking fellow with a ponderous body and pendulous breasts, typically shown sporting a necklace of prayer beads and a goofy grin. But why is he laughing? Folk traditions tell us that he is happy because he is lucky, while others suggest that despite the self-imposed poverty of his earthly incarnation as a Chinese monk, he smiles because he has accumulated the requisite merit of good character and contentment. One of the Seven Lucky Gods, sometimes Hotei is conflated with the Buddha, sometimes he is not, for it is the prerogative of spirits to determine the conditions of their embodiment. The two most popular visions of Hotei show us several pathways: first, in a cluster of triplets bearing the Spanish words ciego, sordo y mudo: blind, deaf and dumb – like the three wise monkeys of Koshin. Hear Sea Speak BuddhaMaybe this is because in this form, Hotei manifests as the God of Abundance, the one who can deliver the goods to gamblers and other fortune seekers who focus their intention by rubbing his enormous gut. In this guise he is right at home in the botanica, where luck is imagined as a product that is traded, bought, and sold like some spiritual commodity on the Big Board – the Yoruba Ile Aye – in the marketplace of the world. In another appearance, Hotei’s face is twisted, malformed, even ugly, for when he first came to Thailand as an enlightened master, people mistook his ethereal beauty for that of the Buddha, so he transformed himself into something less fair. We also see him as Pu-tai, the celestial “Santa Claus” bodhisattva, the generous protector of small children, who comes laden with a sack of goodies and sweets. Historically, these representations of the Buddha have flowed on streams of oral tradition and folklore. This the stuff of popular religion! Many of his most colorful representations come out in non-institutional, unsanctioned contexts. And much like the innumerable personal saints and angels of Catholicism, he is enjoyed by the masses, yet despised by religious officials. But the priests and ministers look the other way, and everyone gets along. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

By embracing these Buddha figures, I think that botanicas, religious supply stores, and Hoodoo shops operate in a spirit of inclusivity, providing in their juxtaposition of diversity what Joseph Murphy has called a “creole religion.” While not specifically African, there is definitely something of the African penchant for the active assimilation of religious, cultural, and ethnic differences. It is the will to draw many characteristics into a single vein of tangible sensibilities, the genius of individuation by collective incorporation, and one finds it to be a prominent register of Africana religious styles. You see it in Haiti, where multiple lineages were brought together using the ritual idiom of Sevis Gineh; and elsewhere in the Caribbean, where the Big Drum thunderously called the nations to ancestral celebrations; or even in places like South Carolina, where African and African-American slaves subsumed their ethnic differences under the sacred umbrella of the Praise House, with its liminal circle dances. Am I saying that today’s botanica is actually a supernatural merchandisers’ League of Nations, promoting peace and cooperation under the banner of spiritual pluralism? Not exactly, but it could be. It is not unusual for Hoodoo practitioners to force success using prescriptions that draw upon contradictory, even oppositional, magical energies. This is not inconsistent: for as long as there are particular wishes, particular wants, and particular needs to be fulfilled, there’s enough work to go around. And so it goes whether it is with a fat Chinese monk, an African mermaid, or a macho black king with a pot of gold. After all, this is the age of specialization.

I am greatly inspired by Professor Joseph Murphy’s recent article on botanicas in Washington, D.C., “Objects that Speak Creole” in Material Religion 6, Issue 1, 2010, pp. 86-109.

A Story of Conjuring, Magic, and a White guy named Chung

This is one of those strange-but-true stories that I find really interesting. As I was browsing for historical information on Hoodoo, I found multiple sources dating back to the 1800s on the practice of magic as a kind of theatrical entertainment: staged illusions, seances, mesmerism/hypnosis acts, mind-reading shows, and so forth.images-1 I believe that these commercialized spectaculars were in some way linked to the new esoteric and metaphysical movements that swept through England and the United States at the turn of the century. This was the era of the first New Age: Spiritualism, occultism, Theosophy, the “discovery” of Eastern religions – even science was viewed as a kind of magic in the discourses of the time (amidst the cultural and social anxieties produced by this shifting psychic terrain, we also see the rise of Christian fundamentalism – but that is a different story).  I provide this background in order to place my character into a well-defined setting. For this was a period when audiences wanted to see, and to believe, and to engage what was possible; and any and all things were possible. Into this world stepped a man who would become of the most famous stage magicians of his time. He called himself Chung Ling Soo, the Marvelous Chinese Conjurer. tumblr_lqgf3uYqqY1qasjvno1_400Now, one might expect that with such an impressive title, and an equally impressive career to match, we have a person whose presence in history lends credence to claims of racial exceptionalism – after all, how many successful and accomplished Asian performers can one find in the American magic entertainment industry in the early twentieth century? chungbioTurns out, actually, there were tons. With names like Long Tack Sam, and Han Ping Chien, and more than few Chung Lings, it appears that the character of the Chinese Magic Performer carried a lot of prestige on the vaudeville circuit and beyond. I have not been able to figure out why. And while most Chinese and Chinese Americans at this time toiled in the mines and railroads as low wage “coolie” laborers for wealthy national capitalists, our magician par excellent Chung Ling Soo made the most of his ethnic cachet, earning $5000 a week for his extraordinary displays of skill and daring, which included illusions and juggling acts, with Soo sometimes floating above the stage tethered by his excellent long braided ponytail. Mysterious and taciturn, Chung Ling Soo would rarely give interviews, as he never learned to speak English. On those rare occasions when he appeared, righteously inscrutable, he would pontificate in vernacular Chinese gibberish, which would be translated for the press by an interpreter. Only there was a problem. He was a racial faker. An ethnic fraud. A white man passing. Chung Ling Soo was actually William Robinson, a New Yorker of Scottish descent who was said to be “more talented and more of a showman” than the original Chung Ling Foo, the Pekinese illusionist whom Robinson styled himself after. It is a narrative that is fairly well known among professionals in the stage magic business, partly because the life of Chung Ling Soo/William Robinson came to an abrupt end in 1918 when he was accidentally shot onstage while doing Hermann’s famous Bullet Catch Trick2311296076_15db4a2619 So here we have an example of yellowface minstrelsy in its finest form. It is problematic, not only in terms of the dubious ethics of self representation – i.e., Robinson’s conscious adoption of Asian stereotypes and racist artifacts – but in terms of racial construction, in which a white man closets himself while creating a public identity as a cultural other, and is clever enough to outperform the “true” racial other, the Real Chinese Magician. It’s a perfect example of love and theft, in which a distinctive “Asian talent” allowed whites to experience a delicious and fascinating kind of Orientalism without acknowledging its messy social realities and historical contradictions. But isn’t it ironic – particularly as when we look back during these politically charged, complicated, racialized moments in our history – that one of the most successful Chinese performance artists of his day was the one who shamelessly trafficked in a highly egregious style of racial counterfeiting? I also find it remarkable that Soo/Robinson anticipated the widespread (and lucrative) practice of racial mimesis so enthusiastically embraced by white entertainers who also dare to “pass” as oblique racial others for fun and profit. So consider: what better magic is there, than to actually become the object of one’s attraction and disdain? Today Soo/Robinson is commemorated in vintage art, immortalized on film and on stage, and viewed by aficionados of magic as a legendary figure – but never, ever, as a racist clown. Which he may or may not have been. (Lest you think I am picking on white men, one could also talk about gender “passing” on the part of African-American entertainers, from Flip Wilson to Eddie Murphy, reaching a zenith of race/gender parody with today’s “most popular black female comedienne,” Tyler Perry/Madea). As with so many stories entwined with race, magic, and other cosmic mysteries, we withhold judgment until history comes around to redeem us.

The Strange Career of Mami Wata

Popular image of Mami Wata as Maladamatjaute, from a Bombay calendar, ca. 1955

Even though Hoodoo and Conjure supplies are disseminated broadly on the internet these days, it is just as likely that one can find an actual physical botanica or spiritual store where one can purchase the essential merchandise of magical practices. These shops proliferate in urban areas throughout the United States, and more recently, we see that in the suburbs as well as some affluent neighborhoods there are places where religious and magical material goods are sold in a shopping venue. But one might view these vital institutions of Hoodoo as more than just marketplaces; consider the botanica as a museum of artifacts, a gallery of objects, a doctor’s office, and a not-so-liminal space where Interested and Curious folks can engage with experts and adherents of living cultural traditions. Think of a well-stocked botanica as an informational resource that functions on multiple levels and realms of significance: commercial, magical, and artistic.

Cabaret poster of Nala Damajanti, Hindu snake charmer, ca., 1890s

…which brings me to the topic for today,  the emergence of one of the most mysteriously ubiquitous of magical beings, the female water-spirit, Mami Wata. I say “mysteriously ubiquitous” because like many mythical forms in the African diaspora, tracking her provenance can be a special challenge. But what if we went on a journey down her visual pathways? Why not? I own a Mami Wata statuette. I keep it in my office next to my Aunt Jemima figurine, having purchased it at a deep discount at a Philadelphia botanica that was rotating its inventory of saints. Mami Wata is fascinating, not only because she appears in so many different guises across different times and places, but because as an icon she inspires multiple meanings and spiritual purposes for her devotees, who keep her presence alive.

It is as if by virtue of her fluidity as a being of the water, that she is able to shape-shift, yet somehow remain resonant with a consistent morphology. In some settings, she is simply Mami Wata – a concept originating among the Ibibio people in the southeast coast of Nigeria. Gradually, recognition of her alluring energy spread, from Togo to Tobago. In different contexts she is associated with other names; yet her deep connection to her African sources is explicit.

Der Schlangenbändiger ("The Snake Charmer") as the "Hindu Princess" and her magnificent snakes, ca. 1880s
Der Schlangenbändiger (“The Snake Charmer”) as the “Hindu Princess” and her magnificent snakes, ca. 1880s

There, she is often presented as a goddess of fertility and healing who takes the form of a large, fish-tailed mermaid, sometimes carrying, in classic  style, a mirror or a comb to groom her thick hair. In other examples she strides, queen-like, bejeweled and adorned as a mysterious woman with a serpent, the supreme avatar of divination and mystical sight, wrapped around her body. She appears throughout the African and African-American references as a personality that inspirits physical places and human bodies, but typically, she is viewed as inextricably linked to the primal forces of water: the sea, rivers, and lakes.

When I tried to trace the origins of the most widely distributed images of Mami Wata, I gained some remarkable insights into her representational diversity. In the West, artists in the late nineteenth century who were inspired by the exotic global circus performer

Saint Martha the Dominator, beloved of Hoodoos and rootworkers

Nala Damajanti, captured her likeness in an image that is believed to be reproduced on the inset of a popular Bombay calendar from the 1950s. We would love to know more about other women performers who thrilled audiences with their enticing repertoire of tantric dancing and snake charming under the Orientalist gaze of the culture industry. But that is another story. As images of Nala/Mami Wata travelled, the more she inspired and enthralled, the more she adopted spectacular stylizations that were appropriate to the cultural specifics of local religious aesthetics. She makes another appearance in the Dominican Republic in early twentieth century chromolithographs as Santa Marta la Dominadora, or Saint Martha the Dominator, as she is known in espiritismo circles, an aggressive yet highly accessible female patron of domestic servants, lonely housewives, single women, and waiters. It is in this iconographic style, powerfully wielding her serpent guides as the holy child patiently sits beneath her, that the specific associations with Hoodoo practices and practitioners began to formalize.  And so the circle is completed. Sources locate the history of this remarkable being in her physical, psychic, and material embodiments starting in Egypt, sweeping the African continent and on to Germany, to India, to the Caribbean, to Puerto Rico, to Brazil, and to my office at Swarthmore College, where she sits, in subtle repose, among others. As I said, she is ubiquitous, eminently popular, and profoundly multicultural. What more could one want from a wonderful water goddess?

Voodoo (Paper) Dolls!

Well, this one is fun and educational. Who doesn’t love paper dolls? Well some of us At first I thought this would be just another graphic box ‘o zombies, but it isn’t. The text tells us the story: Jake and Emily are a pair of “curious tourists” who arrive in New Orleans, go sight-seeing and partying, try on various “souvenir” outfits, and then make their way to the Voodoo Swamp, where they meet Father Joe and Princess Delphine, a renowned houngan and mambo, who also have their own fabulous removable wardrobe! Although the Voodoo paper dolls are presented as “tongue-in-cheek,” it appears that someone did do some research. The clothing is beautifully detailed in full color, and the dolls portray authentic African American sartorial traditions. There are pages devoted to the spirit beings of Vodou, including the loas Baron Samedi and Gran Ibo. Most significantly, the author draws a crucial distinction between several styles of “Voodoo” practice that might be found in the United States:  Haitian Vodou, Hoodoo, and New Orleans Voodoo are distinguished from each other as separate religions in this unique and creative interpretation. mambo

I give bonus points for Mambo Blu’s Boutique Voodoo, a cut-out “tourist shop” that has the only paper-doll-voodoo-dolls I have ever come across. Kudos to artist Kwei-Lin Lum for representing Voodoo in the comics and giving us art that we can learn from and play with.

On the Trail of Digital Comics Collections

brother voodooNow that the examination of comics and graphic novels is becoming established as a field of study by the American Academy of Religion, it behooves researchers to be able to track down the best library archives and collections for doing this work. I am glad that the definition of viable texts for academic analysis and interpretation has extended to these valuable materials.

Today I saw an awesome archive with multiple historical collections of comics at the University of Florida. Can’t wait to dig in there for Africana religions sources. Any other collections that people out there want to let me know about, I am compiling a resource list for other scholars and researchers who are interested in Africana representations in Religion studies with comics, manga and graphic novels.

Africana Religion and Comics, Towards a Useful Semiotics

All respect for one of the first black-owned comics to feature African and African-descended characters and heroes in a single issue.


Please support research on the comics! See, for example, this extraordinary presentation online at Google Arts and Culture.

…we especially want to know about representation, race, gender, and the African guy with an arrow in his diaper. 

Voodoo Tropes #1: Things That Make You Go Hmmmmm….

On the subject of Voodoo Tropes, today I found two interesting images in the media archives. And even though they bridge a wide gulf of social and economic changes that took place in the United States’ culture industry during the first half of the twentieth century – nearly fifty years stands between them – there is also something oddly similar about them, and about what they represent. 30575331

Look closely. Look at the faces. Is it just me, or do you see something strange about the men in these pictures? They are twins. What does it mean? Could it be that these are recycled roles? Or perhaps in some sort of ironic twist, this juxtaposition aptly demonstrates the convergence of two of the most racially disturbing icons in the history of American entertainment. So we see that the white minstrel is actually a kind of black zombie, or vice versa.  zombie2Another explanation might be that we are simply looking at the same actor (a time-traveller, perhaps?) – doing what he does best: bizarre-and-freakishly-anomalous-blackface-characters-who-were-once popular-now-horribly-offensive-and-wrong. You decide. I’m going to ask my students.

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