New York

Arturo Lindsay

Franklin Furnace

With El Monte: Homenaje a Lydia Cabrera (Homage to Lydia Cabrera, 1993), Arturo Lindsay dedicated a rich, multimedia installation to Cabrera—the scholar of Afro-Cuban art and culture who brought the iconography of Santería to Wifredo Lam’s attention. By building five shrines dedicated to various orishas, or gods of Santería, and two shrines honoring the forgotten history of his native Panama, Lindsay lifted the veil of secrecy that has long accompanied Santería ritual—and artistic interpretations thereof—to reveal its symbolism without denying its spiritual dimension.

El Monte” confirms Lindsay’s role as an artist-ethnographer. Each one of the five orisha shrines presented an alchemical mix of genuine African and Afro-Atlantic ritual artifacts, such as statues and votive candles, and a range of objects drawn from popular culture. Each was backed by a large, ornately framed portrait of a specific orisha, combining both text and image, and fronted by an altar holding his or her identifying attributes. Enhanced by the pungent scent of candles and sounds subtly emanating from a hidden tape, this visual mix foregrounded Santería’s eclectic fusion of traditional Yoruba symbolism and Catholic iconography. Guarding the entrance was the trickster Eleggua, lord of the crossroads, represented by both a statue of St. Anthony of Padua, and a small, concrete cone embedded with cowrie shells and topped with a red feather. Next was Shango, god of lightning, whose Catholic counterpart is Saint Barbara, and who Lindsay also identified with the Yoruba oshe, or sacred double-headed axe. The last figure, Osanyin, the one-eyed god of the forest and of healing, stands perhaps as the best metaphor for the nature of Lindsay’s entire installation, and indeed of Santería itself.

In two similarly multilayered, mixed-media shrines, the artist paid homage to the runaway slaves known as cimarrones, who defended the jungles of Panama during the country’s tumultuous colonial period. Shrouded in a thicket of bamboo, each one consisted of a large-scale, brightly painted canvas, African statuary, and a Panamanian carnival hat worn by the Congos de Colon Panamanians who trace their ancestry to the Congo-born cimarrones. By honoring these early freedom fighters with royal fanfare, Lindsay effectively reclaimed and transformed the hallowed American tradition of founding-father portraiture. Drawing on the ritual, additive mode of traditional Congo sculpture in Have We Come this Far to Lose Our Children?, he fashioned a nkisi (charm) of his own by stabbing a small figure with multiple syringes. This piece effectively juxtaposed the destructive effect of the drug epidemic on the African-American community and the history of the early, successful struggle against slavery.

Lindsay occupies a unique position within the kind of art making that stands at the crossroads of Afro-Atlantic and Latino religious ritual and Western installation art, a mode that has thrived in the past decade in the work of Jorge Rodriguez, José Bedia, and Alison and Betye Saar, among others. Both an artist and a scholar, Lindsay combines esthetic transformation with teaching; never didactic or condescending, his is an insistent reclaiming of the contemporary gallery space for the centuries-old regenerative/spiritual role of art.

Jenifer P. Borum