Feature photo: Creative Direction Janine Francois. Choreography: Stella Odunlami. Dancer: Zinzi Minott: Photography Zainab Adamu. BOdy Art: Estar Melbourne.
I consider myself an artist. I am first and foremost a musician, however I have used other idioms to express my creativity, I have been also in my lifetime a professional dancer and I enjoy textiles and embroidery. I am also passionate about the arts and how it can reach the individual, make a statement and create a powerful message. Over the last couple of years there seems to be a resurgence of interest in all things Orisha. My natural instinct has been to be quite defensive about the use of Orisha in art by non-practitioners and those that perhaps do not have an informed connection to Orisha and our beautiful spiritual path. However at the same time I am aware that there is an awakening of consciousness about Orisha tradition and culture. This is inevitable with the growth of information and accessabilty to this path. I have been quite interested to see what has been produced and also why. It also must be said that any individual may be called and inspired by Orisha. If they are not practitioners at the beginning of the journey who knows where the journey will take them. When you tap into spiritual energy there is more than likely to be some kind of effect, be it positive or negative. Some works of art will fade and others will bloom. For some, an interest in Orisha will be a passing fad. To others it may become a calling. In this episode of my Blog I am going to review a some of the expressions of Orisha Art that passed through London last year.
“FEAST” A series of Plays by Yunior García Aguilera (Cuba), Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria), Marcos Barbosa (Brazil), Tanya Barfield (US) and Gbolahan Obisesan (UK).
When I first heard about “Feast” I really thought it was an amazing opportunity to explore themes, music and dance of the Orisha. The line up looked promising and so did the publicity and blurb. Five writers were involved from Nigeria, the United Kingdon, Brasil, The United States and Cuba and the stories were looking at four different deities, Eshu, Yemoja, Oshun and Oya personified as normal everyday characters in different periods of time within history. It was almost entirely an all black cast directed by Rufus Norris. The play was shown at the Young Vic in Waterloo to sell out audiences for weeks. It just showed the appetite for something like this. I was not sure what to expect. The Musical Director Michael Henry approached me a few weeks before the rehearsals started, looking for material. He didn’t want too much information though, he just wanted to know the time signature and the meaning of the words of some Orisha songs. Well I sent him an essay explaining the fact that he was delving into music that does not have a traditional Western time signature that these are praise sequences and prayer rather than Songs as he would understand it and that the use of language in Lucumi is a complicated topic that I was not really interested in going into with him. I then got the distinct feeling that perhaps there was not an awful lot of background research into Orisha as a belief system by the whole team. What I encountered when I eventually made it to the theatre was a very talented line up, great actors, singers and dancers and OK music and great visuals with five quite badly written, badly researched scripts featuring two dimensional characters which did not express the energy of Orisha. Infact there was one scene that I found really quite offensive. The story that took place in Brasil was about a Slave: Yemoja, who at the end of Slavery did not want her freedom and wanted to remain a slave. The scene went on forever and consisted of a lengthy and repetative dialogue between the Slave owner and the Slave ( Yemoja) who seemed to be begging to remain a Slave. To be truthful I could not quite believe what I was experiencing. I remember a few of us sitting dumbfounded after the play had finished not knowing for a while what to say. The scene that took place in Cuba was not much better. A stereotypical scenario between Jinetera ( Cuban word for Hustler) ( Yemoja again) and Foreign tourist. This is not the Yemoja I have come to know over the years; all powerful, all caring and embrassing. A mother to us all. Imagine the power of the sea. Imagine that energy. How the writers came to their conclusions about the characters portrayed is absolutely beyond me. Did they not have enough imagination to conjure up some interesting roles, did they not research into the energy of each Orisha before writing their pieces of work, or did they rely on easily identified Orisha stereotypes to frequently portrayed by many? My thoughts were that a good opportunity had gone to waste. It would have been great to engage writers from the orisha tradition. There must be some out there! I happened to listen to an interview with the director a few days afterwards and realized that his knowledge and research was practically nil and that he could not answer the questions that the interviewer was asking him about the religion.
Later on last year I became aware of some photos that were circulating around the net. The photos were by Atlanta based photographer James C Lewis.
The response to the photos online was varied. Some loved them, others hated them and I really didn’t get them at all. I didn’t understand why the bodies were all oiled up. Why Obatala looked like he had a headache. Why Inle was sitting with his legs open in Yellow Satin Underpants. I found the images oversexualised and again the female images really weak. Apart from being glossy vogue like photos, nothing said “Orisha” to me or distinguished one clean shaven six packed image from another. The images were over stylised for my liking. His exhibition “ The Orisha Experience” ( Not sure what you could experience about the Orisha by looking at the photos) came to London In October. The exhibition again was very well attended and it seemed his intentions were honorable.
“I wanted to portray the regal beauty of each Orisha while also representing their majestic sensuality. Each iconic depiction was rendered to lend strength to our resilience as a great race of people and to show our youth that they are beautiful, bold and brilliant just the way God created them to be.”
However for me, showing our youth images like these only sends out the message that obtaining physical “perfection” is important and that a perfectly shaved beard and blue contact lenses is the way to go. As a daughter of Oshun, these type of images are not as beautiful to me as some of my elders that have been crowned with Orisha for many years and have served their community selflessly. I did not get this at all. My ideas of beauty I think are not shaped by the media and what is considered to be beautiful by many however I guess beauty is subjective and many will not agree with me. Our beloved Orisha have depth and purpose and distinctive energies which our children can all learn from, but not from these images. These are not the kind of images that I would show my children and grandchild for inspiration.
RE- INTRODUCING OSHUN:
What a breath of fresh air it was to visit Janine Francois exhibition re introducing Oshun. Again, after the above two experiences I went to the exhibition feeling kind of cynical and I was pleasantly surprised. The Artistic Director of the project, Janine was there to welcome visitors and was happy to explain her motives behind the exhibition. Like the above two projects, she did not know very much about the Orisha and had just about come across Oshun by accident and what she found out resonated with her. The exhibition incorporated five enormous prints of photos on Organza material of a woman decorated with Body paint who was dancing as she was photographed. The exhibition also included a film focused on body image and empowering women. They also provided some talks and participatory workshops. For me this project had meaning and depth and I thought that Janine and her team did a great job of representing a little bit of Oshun energy and making an inspirational difference.
The exhibition ended with a show. A homage to Oshun. I went along not knowing what to expect again! The show was different. There were stories, songs, dance, poetry, visuals and it was an entertaining evening, although for me, many of the acts didn’t connect with me on an Oshun level. The highlight was Jacob Joyce’s story telling. He did a magnificent job in telling stories of Orisha but it was very obvious that he has a driving passion and connection to Orisha which came across as he told the stories.
Oya: Rise of Orisha.
This is a project directed by young, London based film maker Nosa Igbinedion. I came across the idea for the project on line. They were organizing a Crowdfunding campaign. I was impressed that they seemed open and willing to engage everyone in the creative process. The trailer was recently released.
I have been very interested in the opinion of the Orisha community, many of whom don’t seem to be enamoured with the idea of the project however there are others including myself who are interested in the progress of the film. The reason why I am supportive of this film is that I would love to see more roles for black women on the big screen. After the success of “Twelve Years A Slave” Directed by British Film Director Steve Mcqueen and the somewhat tokenistic approach of Hollywood to Lupita, would it not be great to have an Orisha inspired film with some powerful women in the lead roles? I can understand the concerns from Orisha practioners. No one wants to see Orisha misrepresented. I am hoping that the roles in the film are positive representations. It is without a doubt that those crowned with Orisha and who follow the path, experience Orisha from a certain persepective. Those who are crowned experience Orisha from the inside out. Those that walk the path live by different rules and we have an ongoing dialogue with Orisha, it is bound to give us a completely different take on the world and how we see it. I am however looking forward to the release of the film in May and The Director has agreed to be interviewed, so I will be featuring his interview next week and I am so looking forward to his answers.
Art is subjective. We cannot all agree about what we find beautiful and what we relate to. There have been all sorts of opinions regarding the above projects by Orisha Practioners. I would have to say though that the one that had an overwhelmingly large thumbs down was FEAST. I am sure that the Director Rufus Norris will have jumped off this band wagon and be looking for something else to exploit. Subjective appreciation is undeniably part of what art is. That is the beauty of art, so I am interested in your opinions about the above projects regarding Orisha.
Coming up next week Jacob Joyce’s amazing project ” Survival Guides” and an Interview with Nosa Igbinedion. I am going to be starting up a new page also featuring artists from the Orisha tradition and those that I find inspirational. If you have art that you would like featured please get in contact.