by Saran Alderson, VPAM Student Tutor
I try to always look for the best in every situation. As we come into another day, week, or hour of isolation and social-distancing, it gets harder to find that silver lining. Let’s face it, times are tough right now. We are living through a generational trauma that will have repercussions for years to come. Some will be extraordinarily bad, but hopefully, we will create new, positive, or useful things that will affect and inspire generations that come after us. We should remember that throughout history, great tragedies, wars, and other disasters have yielded innovation and blending of cultures to help their generation deal with their extraordinary situations. This is our time to look both inward for reflection and reach outward for connection.
One of the greatest tragedies of mankind was the transatlantic slave trade. Millions of Africans were stolen from their land and enslaved in the “New World.” The majority of enslaved people were sent to Brazil. There they were stripped of their languages, religions, and cultural practices. Many were forced to convert to Christianity and Catholicism, however, a new spiritual practice called Candomblé was created by these enslaved people as a way to hold on to their culture and survive as a people in their awful new reality (Reis). It is a syncretic religion, blended, of multiple spiritual practices from the Yoruba, Bantu, and Fon originating in Western Africa. Candomblé was banned because there was a fear that the African drumming in the ceremonies was actually a rehearsal for a slave uprising. If someone was caught practicing Candomblé they would have received 50-100 lashes (Conrad). Thus, enslaved people had to worship secretly by masking their deities as Catholic saints until after well after slavery ended and into modernity.
From the terrible tragedy of slavery, a new spiritual practice was born, and today Candomblé is still practiced by over 2 million people worldwide. It also acts as a source of inspiration in multiple avenues in the arts. It was a source of inspiration for the contemporary video piece Apariciones/Apparitions by Carolina Caycedo that is co-owned by the Vincent Price Art Museum and the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, developed as part of a collaboration between the two institutions for the Huntington’s /five initiative, and was recently on view at both museums.
In Caycedo’s piece, we see black, brown, and queer dancers invoking a deity of Candomblé named Oxum. Here are some quick facts from the BBC website about Candomblé:
- The word Candomblé means dancing in honor of the gods.
- Practitioners believe that there is one all-powerful God, Oludumaré who is served by lesser deities called orixás.
- Orixás are ancestors who have been deified and are a link between the spiritual world and the world of humans and serve as a protector to a person’s destiny.
- Candomblé practitioners revere nature and worship the spirits that are found in trees, plants, and other natural things. The individual orixás are related to specific elements of nature.
- Worship happens in the form of dances and hymns that call to the spirits and temporarily possess the dancer’s body causing them to enter a trance-like state. Sometimes highlighting good or bad actions from the community for all to judge.
- There is no concept of good or bad. Instead, each person must fulfill their own destiny, whatever that may be. Any evil you may cause will eventually come back to you and it is the ancestor spirits’ responsibility that you maintain past moral standards (“Candomble at a glance”).
In Caycedo’s video, the dancers are dressed in yellow/gold and are performing next to or in bodies of water, evoking attributes of the goddess Oxúm. Oxúm (also known as Oshun) is the orixá of beauty, gold, love, fertility, and sweet-flowing water. The traditional dance associated with this deity recounts her bathing in a waterfall, and as such, she is especially associated with rivers and moving bodies of water. The movements of the dancers evoke these traditional movements of the religion and of Oxúm, but also reflect Caycedo’s creative collaboration with Brazilian choreographer Marina Magalhães.
Oxúm’s legend stems from a Yoruban myth that she was brought into existence by Olodumare. He is the all-powerful God previously mentioned. After creating the earth, he realized something was missing: sweetness and love. So he created Oxúm. The Yoruba believe that humankind would not exist without Oxúm’s sweet and fertile waters being released into humanity. Oxúm’s rituals tend to take place in water to suggest cleansing and rebirth. She is associated with finance or gold. In Africa, she was associated with copper, which was the more precious metal at the time. Later on, when Brazil experienced a gold rush, she became associated with gold. Fun fact: sometimes copper or gold coins are thrown into bodies of water as an ex-voto to Oxúm (Kingsburg and Chestnut). The Vincent Price Art Museum has a selection of ex-votos in our permanent collection.
So why are the dancers doing their things all around the Huntington? It is because Caycedo is addressing the fact that many people of color and folks from other underrepresented groups tend to not feel comfortable in traditionally white spaces like museums. Folks don’t see themselves in the other patrons, nor reflected in the artwork on display. This piece has black, brown, and queer dancers literally taking up space in one of these traditionally white spaces with their wide-sweeping gesticulations. They are confronting colonial imagery. In some cases staring at them in their faces and other times staring at us the viewer. It is as though they are saying, “never forget how we got here.”
It is amazing to think that through dance, one can evoke not just deities but also community. During these trying times, some of the dancers that appear in Caycedo’s work are continuing to create places where communities can convene. On Instagram Marina Magalhães (@marinamagalicious) and Jose Aviles (@soynalgona) are dancing in their living rooms, kitchens, backyards, empty studios, and sidewalks and sharing with the community-at-large. Marina Magalhães has a dance collective, Dancing Diaspora, that holds donation-based zoom get-togethers so folks can dance together while apart. Check out Dancing Diaspora (@dancingdiaspora) on Instagram to join in on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30 PM PST.
From great trials of humanity, we have found ways to band together and make the best of challenging situations wherever we can. Let’s take a cue from Carolina Caycedo and the dancers from Apariciones/Apparitions. We should take a few minutes and take up space, show folks on the other side of the social media device that we are here, we are okay, and we are a community. Try to evoke the spirit of whatever you need to get you through another day of this quarantined life. Find a piece of music that moves you and dance, then share it with us using #FreestyleFridays!
Learn more about Carolina Caycedo: Apariciones / Apparitions here.
Reis, João José. “Candomblé in Nineteenth-Century Bahia: Priests, Followers, Clients, in Rethinking the African Diaspora, The Making of a Black Atlantic World in the Bight of Benin and Brazil”. African religion and Candomble. http://www.ama.africatoday.com/candomble.htm. Accessed April 16, 2020
Conrad, Robert Edgar. “Children of God’s Fire”. African religion and Candomble.http://www.ama.africatoday.com/candomble.htm. Accessed April 20, 2020
“Candomblé at a glance”. BBC.15 September 2009 https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/candomble/ataglance/glance.shtml. Accessed April 16, 2020
Kingsburg, Kate and Andrew Chestnut. “Brazil’s Black Supernatural Sister Queens Our Lady of Aparecida and Oxum”. Academia/Global Catholic Review. July 7, 2009. https://www.academia.edu/39783946/Brazils_Black_Supernatural_Sister_Queens_Our_Lady_of_Aparecida_and_Oxum. Accessed April 18, 2020