New York

“Face of the Gods”

Museum For African Art

“Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas” was Robert Farris Thompson’s most ambitious and successful project to date. Supported by an extensively researched catalogue, this show traced the development of religious altars from their original sources in Africa to a variety of Afro-syncretic altars in the New World. Focusing primarily on the religious, philosophical, and visual paradigms of the Yoruba, Kongo, and Mande peoples, Thompson identified how these traditions have been creatively transformed by the African Diaspora in the altars of Santeria and palo mayombe, religions which originated in Cuba, candomblé from Brazil, and Vodun from Haiti, among others. In this show, 19 altars, some of which were reconstructed by different priests and artists specifically for “Face of the Gods,” brought to light what has long been shrouded in secrecy and misunderstanding.

Yoruba priest and scholar John Mason established the show’s traditional Yoruba heritage with his cowrie shell–studded altar to the orisha (god) Eshu, situated by the Museum’s front door. Another, much larger reconstructed altar to Shangó, the orisha of thunder and lightning, provided viewers with a look at original Yoruba forms, such as the double-headed axe, that would appear in myriad variations in later, New World altars. One example was a visually dazzling Afro-Cuban altar that presented the major orishas majestically enthroned together, identifiable by their attributes. Here, the old forms were appropriated with the respect for tradition and love of innovation central to Afro-Atlantic religious altars.

Brazilian manifestations of Yoruba traditions were also included. The respected candomblé priest and artist Pai Balbino de Paula of Bahia contributed an altar to Omo Olu (“Child of the Lord”), aka Obaluaiye, and the Museum recreated a popular type of altar for Yemanjá, dedicated to the orishas Ibeji and Oshun, usually found on the beaches of Rio on New Year’s Eve, where offerings of grapes, candles and other items are placed in depressions in the sand, eventually to be swept out to sea. A spectacular Brazilian Umbanda altar, manifesting Yoruba and other eclectic sources, was marked by an abundance of figurative representations of gods and spirits.

Ritual forms embodying the unifying force of Kongo cosmology were present throughout this exhibition. Perhaps the strongest manifestations of the Kongo paradigm were altars by José Bedia and Felipe Garcia Villamil, both originally from Cuba. Bedia, who is both a well-known contemporary installation artist and a priest, reconstructed his own personal altar, which could be cleverly concealed within a laundry hamper. Villamil’s enigmatic altar to the god Sara banda, which included drawings and a cauldron stuffed with ritual items, fits into a closet-like space, another reminder of the necessity for secrecy that has determined the forms of Afro-Atlantic altars.

In addition to illuminating spiritual traditions that have, until recently, remained clandestine due to the effort on the part of the Catholic Church to suppress them, “Face of the Gods” retrieved a flourishing visual culture that has been utterly ignored by Western art history. In his decision to include priests like Balbino alongside a contemporary artist like Bedia, Thompson leveled the arbitrary, academic distinction between “artist” and “nonartist,” revealing that African-inspired traditions of altar making constitute a vital art form in their own right.

Jenifer P. Borum