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Saints and Ceremonies

Errol Daniels documents the lively, colorful, and complicated world of Cuban Santeria.

Errol Daniels’s Santeria photographs at El Museo

A documentary photo exhibit on the Cuban syncretic cult called Santeria is currently on display at El Museo Francisco Omer y Diego Rivera.

In the 1800s, when the Spanish brought West Africans to Cuba as slaves to work on sugar and coffee plantations, they compelled them also to adopt the Catholic religion, which didn’t quite take, however. While perforce going through the motions, mimicking the outward rituals and rites of the Christian cult, inwardly the slaves continued to follow their own cult. Ostensibly worshiping the Christian god and honoring Christian saints, but thinking and intending the creator god of their own cult and numerous lesser gods, called Orishas, that they mentally substituted in place of the Christian saints. Or even perhaps to some extent identified with the Christian saints.

Several of the photos depict devotions to one San Lazaro, Saint Lazarus, but secretly, according to the photo captions, to an Orisha, one Babalu Aye. But whoever San Lazaro may represent from the Christian legends—possibly the poor guy who gets raised from the dead, but more likely the poor man who dies and is carried up to the bosom of Abraham—one thing for sure, he was poor, as is evident from his statue, depicting a man in a tattered garment, and his body covered with open sores. The man who went up to Abraham was said to be covered with sores, though you might expect the like initial manifestations of bodily corruption on a corpse after a few days in the tomb. But more than likely the slaves would have identified with a poor man, and due to whatever circumstances, in less than pristine physical condition. Lazarus identified with as much as substituted for Babalu Aye.

The photos are wildly colorful, reflecting the variegated history and current culture of the subjects, and often a mix of clear and in-focus and blur, conveying lively action and a kind of candid camera verisimilitude. Not much if anything is posed. The subjects seem unconscious of or at least unconcerned with the photographer and his apparatus.

Among the collection are several narrative series. One is about a ceremony with a snow-white dove, including rubbing the dove on the head of one of the devotees, transferring evil to the dove. What ultimately becomes of the dove isn’t quite clear from the photos. A caption on one of the photos says the dove “doesn’t know what is coming.”

In a talk at the opening, the photographer explained that “animal sacrifice is common in Santeria rituals, because live animals possess the energy of life, which the Santeros need.” But went on to say that “the priests who perform these sacrifices are trained in humane ways to kill the animals. Afterward the animal is cooked and shared among the community.”

Another series is about ceremonial music and dance. A photo caption explains that “drumming sends messages to the Orishas.” Part of the action here consists of administration of a blessing to the head of one of the devotees. The head is “where the Orishas enter,” another caption explains. (As well as the body part from which evil is extracted, based on the previous series.)

Other photos show copious votive and ritual objects on altars or arrayed for sale in shops or by street vendors. Sundry items, including candles, beads, shells, bells, what look like removed and desiccated goat horns, and mouse traps and rat traps.

Errol Daniels first went to Cuba in 2005 on a commission from B’nai B’rith to do a photographic documentary on the Jewish community there, and the visit inspired several further photo documentary projects, such as the present one. The Jewish community project resulted in the publication of a book, CUBA: A Jewish Journey. Another project was a photographic essay about a nine-year-old Cuban girl afflicted with spina bifida.

The El Museo exhibit continues through July 6.

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