African Divinity, Black Gods

This week I have chosen to explore the Orixás of Brazil’s spiritual knowledge tradition known as Candomblé. What will succeed is an excerpt from Dr. Heather Shirey’s article ‘Transforming the Orixas: Candomble in Sacred and Secular Spaces in
Salvador da Bahia, Brazil’ (2009); followed by an art gallery of Orixas woodcuts produced by João Makray.


In the streets and plazas of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, representations of the orixás , the deities of the African Brazilian religion Candomblé, are visible throughout the city. Mural paintings appear on walls and signs where they blend in with advertisements and graffiti, allowing motorists to contemplate the entire pantheon of orixás while filling up the gas tank. A sculpture of Exú, the guardian of the crossroads and the orixá who oversees all forms of communication, is positioned, most appropriately, in front of the city’s central post office; a painted mermaid associated with Yemanjá overlooks the sea; and on the Dique do Tororó, a large lake and recreation zone in the middle of the city, a group of orixá statues dances in a circle on the surface of the water.

Richly varied in scale and medium, visual references to Candomblé in the streets of Salvador are so frequent that they blend in with the surrounding urban landscape, merging with the multitude of colors that adorn nearly every surface. Although most Candomblé ritual practices take place in private spaces, the frequency of public art with a focus on the religion makes the presence of these images in the secular realm seem as natural and acceptable as advertisements for toothpaste and legal services. The movement of imagery from the sacred space of the Candomblé terreiro (temple) to the city streets, however, requires extensive intervention, as the complicated aesthetics of Candomblé must be recast in a way that is comprehensible and palatable to a broad public…..

The Candomblé orixás are named deities with complex personalities and attributes, and people who practice Candomblé develop close relationships with particular orixás that are nourished through ritual practice. The orixás in Bahia relate to Yoruba orishas that have remained relatively intact in Candomblé. It should be noted that in Bahia, the vast number of individual Candomblé communities are not unified under one
larger ritual authority and liturgy is not completely  standardized. Individual Candomblé communities are effectively independent from one another, and consequently
beliefs and practices are not entirely consistent. Bahian Candomblé communities identify with a number of
nações (nations; sg. nação), one of which, Nagô, has come to be seen as the dominant Candomblé nation in scholarship as well as in the popular understanding of the religion. Followers of Candomblé Nagô are particularly devoted to the orixás and the ancestry of these entities is rooted specifically in Yoruba practices from Nigeria. Members of Candomblé terreiros of other naroes, such as Jeje and Angola, however, accord special attention to other kinds of spirits (caboclos and exus, for example), usually alongside a variety orixás, some of
which differ from those revered in the context of Candomblé Nago. In this case, the origins of the spirits can be found throughout West Africa as well as in Brazil. Given the diversity of beliefs and practices along the various naroes, is it not surprising that connections to Yoruba ritual practice vary from community to community; along some followers of Candomblé , Yoruba is spoken as a liturgical language, for example, but this is certainly not universal. Likewise, the relationship of the Candomblé orixás to similar spiritual entities in Yoruba practice is by no means precise….

The presence of Africa is quite visible in this city, where a large percentage of the population is African descent. African-derived rhythms dominate popular music, and local culinary specialties–based on ingredients like okra, black-eyed peas, and palm oil– would not be out of place in West Africa. Since Candomblé has strong connections to West African traditions, it is often held up as a symbol of the presence of Africa in Bahia. A billboard campaign in 2001 sponsored by the State Board of Culture and Tourism referred to Salvador as “Black City: The Most African City of Brazil”. This speaks to the fact that the region’s unique “African” identity serves to sell Bahia to visitors from other parts of Brazil and abroad. The incorporation of a popularized version of Candomble into the cycle of festivals promoted by the state and local governments has served as an important device to draw national and international tourists to Bahia, and this has also provided Candomble with visibility and perceived legitimacy in mainstream society. But of course the acceptance of Candomblé and other cultural practices defined by the dominant culture as “African” is relatively recent in the history of Bahia.

From the time of their arrival in the slave port of Bahia, Africans
and their descendants began to transform the beliefs and
practices of their diverse ancestors into Candomblé, the religion
as it is practiced today. Scholars across the disciplines have examined the history of Candomblé, exploring, among other questions, its relationship to self-help organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church and its role in identity formation in Bahia and elsewhere. Emerging from these numerous rich studies is a history of repression, sometimes violent, and the development of the religion as a subculture and a site of resistance). In addition, many of these studies have sought
to trace the complicated and shifting relationship between the
dominant class, mostly wealthy and identified as ‘white;’ which
recognized and feared the power of Candomblé, and those who
practiced the religion, most of whom were of lower socio-economic status and identified as “black” or “African:’

After the abolition of slavery in 1888 and until the 1930s, the
state of Bahia repressed the practice of Candomblé by outlawing ceremonies, confiscating sacred objects that are central to the religion, and ordering the arrest of individuals who were caught in possession of its material culture . A notable shift occurred in the conceptualization of Brazil and its national identity in the 1930s…

Candomblé’s previous image as a “primitive ritual”-one that was perceived to be potentially dangerous and corruptive to the dominant culture-was recast as a “religion” that contributes to the shared identity of Bahia.


Orixás by João Makray


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