David H. Brown. Santeria Enthroned: Art, Ritual, and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. xx + 413 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-07609-6; $38.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-07610-2.
Reviewed by Michael Stone (Latin American Studies, Princeton University)
Published on H-LatAm (January, 2006)
Afro-Cuban Religious Practice and the Covalent Production of Knowledge
From its first descriptive accounts, the ritual practice of Afro-Cuban Santeria (known also as Lucumi) has remained a subject of fascination, misunderstanding, and official wariness, cooptation, and suppression. Art historian David H. Brown, a non-resident fellow at Harvard University's W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, has studied Santeria for over fifteen years, working among adherents in Cuba and the United States. The author of The Light Inside: Abakua Society Arts and Cuban Cultural History (2003) returns with Santeria Enthroned, a comprehensive examination of Lucumi ritual practice, belief, and aesthetics. The book offers a detailed history of the development of practitioner communities, with an examination of characteristic processes of religious innovation, manifest in Lucumi ritual, and aesthetic practice in Cuba and North America.
Brown frames his account as an interweaving of and elaboration upon the work of art historian Robert Farris Thompson, and of anthropologists Sidney Mintz, Richard Price, and Stephan Palmie. As an art historian, Brown is particularly interested in the Lucumi material culture, its aesthetics and iconography, through the study of which he seeks to understand the processes of change, innovation, reform, and invention manifest in the life histories of some of its most prominent leaders and practitioners.
His core argument is as follows: "The creative choices of self-conscious leaders and their dedicated constituencies have made possible the emergence, growth, and resilience of Afro-Cuban religions in Cuba and the United States despite relentless official efforts to coopt, control, and destroy them. The Afro-Cuban religions today owe their existence to a history of gains from hard-won struggles, not passive 'survivals', where their resiliency is owed as much to innovative transformations wrought on New World soil as to the maintenance or preservation of 'pure' African traditions" (pp. 5-6).
Brown characterizes his theory and method this way: "In terms of historical narrative, I opted to emphasize a 'vertical' thread of changing forms over time instead of grounding change in relation to thickly delineated historical and sociopolitical contexts. Though I situate changing forms in relation to the interests of relevant institutions, actors, and historiographical traditions of knowledge production, I do not intensively situate these changes within airtight frameworks of local and global sociohistorical explanation, an approach demanded by the chief exponents of the new 'principled historical anthropology'" (p. 8).
He distinguishes his analytical strategy from that of social historians and historically oriented anthropologists who, he says, seek to "contextualize changing aspects of Afro-Cuban culture in relation to Cuban political, social, and intellectual history." Counter to John and Jean Comaroff's Ethnography and the Historical Imagination (1992), Brown argues pointedly that the "dialectical, comprehensive local and global historical account" promoted therein "has ... yet to be written" (p. 9).
Brown knows the corresponding literature well enough to anticipate criticism from that quarter. However, insisting that "forms carry their own specific histories," he maintains that their study needs "not cleave to the methods of historical explanation demanded by practitioners of the social history of art" (p. 9). He holds that the close analysis of forms should not be dismissed as "ahistorical" and "merely formalist and interpretive musings." To do so is to perpetrate a form of "theoretical blackmail," he says, a demand "to conform to particular, invested disciplinary schemes and theoretical positions within the academy" (p. 9).
Taking the high road, Brown argues that these respective strategies can productively co-operate; scholars "should work together within a multidisciplinary field of complementary interests and approaches. Historical anthropologists and social historians should continue to do what they do best" (p. 9). He sees his own "more 'vertical' approach to institutional, ritual and iconographic innovations [as an] opportunity to focus closely on organizations, objects, and performances; from specific archival, oral, and ethnographic data I can build detailed accounts of selected practices over time without having to pronounce on their multilevel historical causation" (p. 9).
Thus inoculated against the most likely avenues of hypothetical critique, Brown seeks to "use theoretically informed oral stories in order to derive hypotheses about agency, creativity, and inventiveness in early Lucumi practice ... to develop useful questions about the function and meaning of such confirmatory rituals ... [and] to demonstrate that the stories contemporary practitioners tell dynamically combine variant, complementary, and sometimes conflicting folk theories of Black Atlantic cultural transmission" (p. 14).
As Brown relates, "my interest in form as an art historian and visual anthropologist... has led me to de-emphasize thicker historical explanation in favor of ... closely focus[ing] upon the details of internal changes on an epochal 'time line'" (p. 296). Cultural theorists and social historians may balk at this emphasis, but Brown's close detailing of Lucumi's heretofore mostly oral-historical traditions deserves consideration. Scholars will have to temper their theoretical skepticism and weigh the relative utility of the approach on the basis of the author's exhaustive documentation and analysis.
The writing style is generally fluid and jargon free, although some conspicuous typos in the introduction and beyond indicate a hurried editorial eye. Placing recurrent terminology in scare quotes throughout is a laborious distraction that could have been avoided by using the original Spanish terms and referring readers to the glossary. Moreover, the volume's wide-page, double-column format, with some 300 pages of smallish font (plus more than 100 pages of end matter) will leave comparativists and non-specialists wishing for a more condensed exposition. Clearly, this is a work for specialists, as well as for anyone with an abiding interest in Afro-Cuban spiritual history, iconography and material culture.
Not least in this regard stand practitioners themselves. Paradoxically, as a scholarly work, Santeria Enthroned may well ascend, in whole or in part, to the status of canonical text, while also sparking sectarian disputes within the broader Lucumi universe (just as adherents have referenced, debated, and re-appropriated the trailblazing scholarship on Afro-Cuban religion by Lydia Cabrera, for instance).
Brown does recognize the critical importance of self-reflexivity in representing and analyzing how "the politics, motives, and methods in and around the 'multiple locations of historical knowledge' and its production" condition the final accounting presented by his book. However, he says, "I reserve the right to consider [these issues] in my future writing" (p. 13). Among them, the reverse of the title page identifies Brown as "founder and manager of Folkcuba.com, L.L.C." That URL's perusal reveals a site dedicated to the sale of a range of Afro-Cuban spiritual creations, regalia, and ritual materials. In light of his theoretical positioning, Brown would do well to explicate the connection between his scholarship and his entrepreneurial pursuits.
The main text comprises five chapters. The first ("Black Royalty: New Social Frameworks and Remodeled Iconographies in Nineteenth-Century Havana") addresses the shifting contour of Afro-Cuban religious innovation during the final decades before emancipation (1886), during the independence struggle, and in the early days of Cuban nation building. Invoking prevailing scholarly views, Brown sees Afro-Cuban religions as arising from neo-African ethnic formations glossed as nations, and from mutual aid societies or clubs known as cabildos, casas or sociedades, entities viewed with suspicion by white Cubans and the state apparatus in their service. He says that these emergent social formations and their constituencies engaged in a consciously motivated process of cultural conservation, transformation and innovation that found diverse outlets in a range of expressive arts and street festivals. Significant developments included the rise of Afro-Cuban "royalty" and sacred hierarchies, alongside the unruly negros curros "street aristocracy" (Brown's quotes), social constellations whose respective ritual and institutional innovations gave rise to characteristically Cuban expressive practices, vocabulary, and iconography.
Chapter 2 ("From Cabildo de Nacion to Casa-Templo") looks beyond the received narrative of a determinate, self-contained, pervasive defining process, seeking a more nuanced comprehension of the emergence of twentieth-century Lucumi belief and practice. Drawing on archival research and oral histories from Havana and Matanzas, Brown posits a contested field involving rival actors and institutions engaged in opportunistic projects of expressive ritual authority and self-fashioning historical discourse. His evidence suggests that Lucumi self-definition came about through the competing, self-interested, politically astute strategies of a relatively few influential African and creole personages and their ritual descendents, based primarily in Regla, across the bay from Havana. (There is no particular reason for Brown to note that Regla today is home to a self-consciously Afro-Cuban hip-hop culture that stands as one of the regime's most outspoken artistic critics. But it must be said that Brown offers no sustained discussion of race and politics, an issue of historical and contemporary importance that, many scholars insist, simply cannot be factored out of a historically informed analysis of Afro-Cuban religion.)
The third chapter ("Myths of the Yoruba Past and Innovations of the Lucumi Present") considers the forging of contemporary Lucumi theology, the regularization of initiation rituals, the proliferation of ritual specialists, and their hierarchical ranking. Brown sees Lucumi's openness to non-African religious conventions (such as the Roman Catholic pantheon of saints) in terms of how such influences helped to crystallize a variety of West African cultural strains into a coherent (if never fully standardized) hybrid New World form, one mutually constituted through the intersecting narratives of creole practitioners and adherents, neo-African cosmologies, Cuban authorities, Western ideas of a world-religious genealogy, and the work of interested scholars.
Chapter 4 ("Royal Iconography and the Modern Lucumi Initiation") offers a closer examination of an iconography traceable to nineteenth-century festival practices. Focusing on the sartorial presentation of the Lucumi pantheon of orichas or saints, and the way that generalized Yoruba and European styles intersect therein, Brown sees this pantheon as cleaving between "palace royalty" on one hand, and "warriors" of the street and rural areas on the other. He detects a firmly Cuba-oriented rereading of convergent representations of European royalty and Yoruba-inscribed distinctions between the cults of Chango and Ogun. These distinctions animate the Cuban cultural imagination, and are deeply written into Cuban expressive arts, literature, and oral traditions.
The final and longest chapter ("'The Palace of Oba Lucumi' and the 'Creole Taste'") considers contemporary innovations in iconography and meaning. Brown asks, "How did central elements of modern Lucumi initiatory iconography come to be elaborated in a system of objects and aesthetic preferences that appear to derive as much from European baroque, rococo, and neoclassical styles as from Yoruba kingship and cult ritual?... how is it that such aesthetic preferences have been widely regarded by most Cuban and Latino practitioners as appropriate, time-honored, and 'traditional'" (p. 214)?
Brown answers by elaborating an art history and "biography" (his quotes) of the main formal markers of the palace of Oba Lucumi, the master of ceremonies of initiation and divination. He focuses on the material culture of royal altars, thrones, and ceremonial objects, and the clothing of the orichas. These elements reflect a process of borrowing or appropriation begun in the colonial period and extended into the present, in a dialectical relationship between Lucumi on the one hand, and on the other, popular Catholicism and Cuban bourgeois and aristocratic sensibilities. The aesthetic conventions thus produced embody an identifiably "creole taste" that Brown and other scholars such as Fernando Ortiz trace to the "white" branches of Afro-Cuban Abakua society. Brown characterizes Afro-Cuban aesthetics as producing "marvelous hybrids of elements from European imports and Cuban material culture (cloth and porcelain), compounded with importations of West African trade goods (skins, horns, cloth, and cowries)." In his view, this process entails "a brilliant, historically self-conscious innovation," a reflection of popular consumer choices manifested in intertwined processes of creolization and "re-Africanization" (p. 22).
Social historians and cultural theorists may have theoretical and methodological reservations about Brown's approach and the way he circumscribes his project, but there is no denying his accomplishment. Santeria Enthroned presents an ambitious blend of archival research, visual analysis, oral-historical interviews, ethnography, ethnohistory, and the techniques of art history, applied to the problematic tension between continuity and innovation in Afro-Cuban religion. The book will stand as an essential reference for decades to come.
In closing, Brown reiterates his call for an ecumenical, historically informed approach to the study of Afro-Cuban religions, and recognizes that subjects today talk back: "We can hope that historically contextualized studies emerge that combine a close focus upon reflective agents of change and attention to linked local and global systems, questions of modernity, and knowledge production within the fields that foment African Diaspora or Black Atlantic studies. Still, the greatest and possibly most interesting challenge to scholars will be to respond to studies by practitioners themselves" (p. 296).
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Michael Stone. Review of Brown, David H., Santeria Enthroned: Art, Ritual, and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion.
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