Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 25, 2016
Kristine Juncker Afro-Cuban Religious Arts: Popular Expressions of Cultural Inheritance in Espiritismo and Santería Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014. 216 pp.; 28 color ills.; 15 b/w ills. Cloth $74.95 (9780813049700)

In Afro-Cuban Religious Arts: Popular Expressions of Cultural Inheritance in Espiritismo and Santería, Kristine Juncker combines the study of material culture with the methodological tools of anthropology to trace the history of Afro-Cuban religious arts. Hers is a longitudinal study that begins with the abolition of slavery in 1886, when former slaves migrated to Havana, and ends in an old building in Harlem in the 1960s where Caribbean immigrants congregated to ask the spirits of the dead for guidance. She locates the traces of this history in the artworks produced by a prominent lineage of female religious leaders: Tiburcia Sotolongo y Ugarte, Hortensia Ferrer, Iluminada Sierra Ortiz, and Carmen Oramas. The women are not related by blood; rather they are part of a fictive kinship structure in which adoption and religious affinity form the ties that bond. Tiburcia (1861–1938), the matriarch, was born into slavery in the San Miguel Plantation—one of the largest sugarcane estates and one of the liveliest sites for the practice of African styles of worship in the province of Havana. During her lifetime, Tiburcia adopted four children, including the six-year old Hortensia. Hortensia inherited her house of worship and began to build the archive (detailed notes on practices and photographs) that forms the basis for chapter 3. She also organized the rituals necessary for Iluminada’s initiation into La Regla de Ochá. In 1957, Iluminada left Cuba for New York City and joined a group of women practicing Espiritismo led by Carmen Oramas. A few years later, Iluminada became Carmen’s godmother in La Regla de Ochá. Together, these women produced a series of religious objects that, as Juncker endeavors to show, engaged multiple systems in order to cultivate their diverse audiences.

Their altars, sculptures, and photographs reveal the dynamic relation between Espiritismo and La Regla de Ochá, religious systems that are usually thought of, says Juncker, as parallel to each other. As Juncker’s study makes clear, these women’s unique practices collapsed the boundaries between discrete ritual discourses. Home altars are a case in point. The women featured in this study transformed their houses into religious habitats in which public altars to honor the spirits of the dead were put in close relation to secret bóvedas beheld only by initiates of La Regla de Ochá. In so doing, argues Juncker, these women created hybrid practices that allowed for the channeling and harnessing of spiritual forces from different religious universes (42). By exploring the archive of artworks these women created, Juncker seeks to demonstrate that Espiritismo and La Regla de Ochá are not mutually exclusive doctrines, but rather they exist in symbiotic relation to each other.

Juncker notes that most scholarly treatments of Afro-Cuban religions have focused on men partly because they bore the brunt of state persecution and partly because seminal studies in the early twentieth century followed a patriarchal tradition that neglected women. Yet Juncker shows that in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery and in the wake of the “Little Race War,” during which six thousand Afro-Cubans who fought for equal rights were massacred and babalaos (religious priests or leaders) were jailed, the roles of women in Afro-Cuban religions and mutual-aid societies radically changed. They stepped into positions of leadership and deeply transformed the everyday practice of these religions. They moved ceremonies into the private space of their homes and began to adopt a religious style that favored the overlapping of spiritual genealogies. Thus, Afro-Cuban Religious Arts makes a valuable contribution, unearthing personal stories often overlooked by historical and sociological accounts of Cuban cultural practices.

The main text comprises four chapters. “Religious Pluralism and the Afro-Cuban Ritual-Arts Movement, 1899–1969” opens the book and provides a broad outline of what Juncker considers to be the conceptual frameworks that have shaped the study of Afro-Cuban religions. She grounds this genealogy on brief discussions of the work of figures such as Fernando Ortiz, Melville Herskovits, Rómulo Lachatañeré, Lydia Cabrera, and William Bascom, among others. She identifies the beginnings of the field in the works of Ortiz, who in one of his seminal books, Los negros brujos (Black Sorcerers, 1906), defined Afro-Cuban ritual practices as atavistic remainders of African primitive culture in the Americas. Her discussion of concepts such as acculturation, syncretism, and hybridity explains how the field has moved from methodologies that focused on finding direct connections with Africa to theoretical approaches that take creativity and negotiation as the means by which Afro-Cuban religions have permeated social life and have survived state control, repression, and cooptation.

The second chapter examines the history of Afro-Cuban religious arts in the wake of the abolition of slavery, state persecution in the 1910s, and government attempts to regulate such religious expressions. In “Tiburcia and the Nested Spaces of Afro-Cuban Ritual Arts, 1861–1938,” Juncker analyzes the artifacts created by Tiburcia and her descendants. Born into slavery, Tiburcia established a long-standing and well-respected house of worship in central Havana. Juncker reconstructs her spiritual practice and the material culture she generated, specifically altars and bóvedas, and finds that they embody a creative juxtaposition of different strands of Afro-Cuban belief systems. As Juncker notes, Tiburcia was a priestess of La Regla de Ochá initiated in the Cabildo Africano Lucumí but also attended Catholic mass and conducted “spiritual masses” and “séances” in her home (45). The syncreticism of her practice is evidenced in the altars Tiburcia distributed throughout her home. She placed an altar to a Catholic virgin, a spirit doll, and a figurine of Eleguá in her living room. In another altar, kept under lock and key in her bedroom, Tiburcia honored different La Regla de Ochá deities (including Eleguá, Ochún, and Changó) through the careful arrangement of percussion instruments, including maracas and rattles alongside soup tureens and food offerings. Juncker argues that Tiburcia’s strategic placement of altars transformed her house into a “nested” sacred geography that allowed theologies and practices that have been thought to be in conflict with each other to comingle and reverberate against each other.

In the third chapter, Juncker discusses a series of photographs commissioned by Hortensia and Iluminada, two of Tiburcia’s followers who became religious leaders in their own right. There are only nine surviving images; they circulate as a sort of testament to the women’s pious acumen. In the 1940s, Hortensia (Tiburcia’s successor) distributed photographic portraits of her mother as a way to legitimate her spiritual lineage. Hortensia also invested in altar images that, in contrasts to the portraits, were only shared with family members and close associates. These photos document Hortensia’s innovations (the use of plants and flowers, for example) in altar construction. What is interesting here is that only two decades after the persecution of these folk practices, photographic technology would be used to memorialize and circulate this kind of knowledge. Juncker suggests that these images were used as “professional calling cards and teaching tools” that facilitated Hortensia’s self-promotion as a gifted leader (74). We discover, however, that similar to the previous generation, only altars to Espiritismo were revealed to the public. Hortensia never photographed her altars to African deities.

In the last chapter, Juncker follows Iluminada from Havana to New York City and attends to the manner in which the composition and imagery of altars changes in this new setting: they become smaller in scale and are transformed into horizontal structures populated by Native American busts, ceramic dolls dressed in colonial-era styles, and figurines of Catholic saints. One of the most compelling aspects of this chapter is Juncker’s description of the ritual and social uses of a doll that embodies the spirit of Francisca, a woman who Carmen and her followers believed to be a runaway slave from Haiti. Juncker discusses the spirit doll as a conduit that allows these women to remember and venerate the forgotten human casualties of colonialism. As such, this religious community engages in the creation of “usable pasts” to craft new and gender-specific rituals and identities.

Juncker’s thick description of the religious arts produced by Tiburcia, Hortensia, and Iluminada is a welcome addition to this field of research. Moreover, her interdisciplinary approach allows a general audience to make out the contours of a rich religious universe. As such, this will be a useful text for an introductory course on either Afro-Cuban religions or Latin American visual/material cultures. However, the book ambitiously promises more than it delivers. For starters, Juncker does not situate the artifacts she analyzes within the broader context of the Afro-Cuban religious art environment. Basic questions, such as how are these altars similar to and different from the ones created by women who belong to other houses of worship, are never asked. And while the focus on women highlights histories that are often obscured, without a comparative framework to evaluate these women’s cultural practices it is difficult to weigh their contributions to the Afro-Cuban religious-art canon or discern the author’s intervention in the field. The most glaring absence in the book is the women themselves. Despite a seemingly feminist anthropological approach, Juncker neglects to account for the perspectives of the women discussed. Their voices are never rendered in a text purportedly dedicated to their unique practices; transcription of their knowledge—such as portions of the extensive interviews she conducted—could have brought them closer to the realm of visibility. Instead, they remain hidden behind the figure of the researcher. From this perspective, the book repeats the lamentable silencing it sets out to correct, and once again the black female subject is spoken for rather than spoken with.

Beatriz E. Balanta
Assistant Professor, Art History Department, Southern Methodist University