Santería Enthroned: Art, Ritual, and Innovation in Afro-Cuban Religion

Article excerpt

Santería Enthroned: Art, Ritual, and Innovation in Afro-Cuban Religion. By David H. Brown. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003. Pp. xx, 413; 27 illustrations. $38.00 / £27.00 paper.

David Brown's work on Santeria altars and material culture owes much to Thompson's cross-Atlantic, comparativist approach.1 Santeria Enthroned is something of a departure from a strictly Afro-Diasporic study in that it places the process of Afro-Cuban religious creolization as the central epistemology that organizes art and practice. Like Abrahams, Mintz and Price, and Ortiz before him, Brown sees historical and cultural contexts as mitigated by paradigmatic concerns.2 That is, the religious symbolism as developed in mid-nineteenthcentury Havana becomes the historical and cultural moment that Brown uses as a referent for his work in the United States and the Caribbean. So, rather than using Yoruba-ness as the philosophical center of investigating Santeria's aesthetic organization, he opts for locating change and invention in the context of the Caribbean. Granted, he speaks about how Apter and Matory have influenced the ways in which he understands Yoruba Diasporic contexts;3 however, he misses the point that they and Yoruba specialists like Yai, Drewal, and Hallen have made about the embeddedness of innovation in Yoruba religious philosophy and practice.4 They argue, and I agree, that methodologies of assemblage, the structure of change, and innovation are embedded in the Orisha traditions of which Santeria is a part. For many, Santeria is more a denomination of a world religion whose incorporation of diverse elements makes great sense to practitioner, philosopher, and priest alike.

Santería Enthroned is a densely layered and beautiful book. Brown's work on the unique innovations and incorporations of Spanish and Catholic royal elements into "Yoruba" religious aesthetics is nuanced. The comparative work with religious iconography, and material culture like initiation gowns and altars, pays close attention to both Yoruba philosophical models and the development of Lucumí Yoruba Cuban innovations. Yet perhaps Brown should have looked a little more deeply into the intense innovations and utterances of "royalty" based on Mediterranean models by Lagosian and Beni Yoruba who had incorporated Portuguese material culture into their own royal palaces and religious culture from at least the mid-eighteenth century on. It was these very Yoruba who made up the majority of the Lucumi in mid-nineteenth-century Havana. Hence, the innovation Brown sees is indeed contextualized and formalized in particular AfroCuban iconic constellations; however, it belongs to a wider and deeper historical and Diasporic context that also includes the Bight of Benin and Bahia, Brazil. The fact that we see similar iconic and religious negotiations taking place contemporaneously in Candomble only reconfirms how the methodology of change and the creation of "home" in religious aesthetics are located in the already understood portability of the Orishas.

Brown does get a lot right in Santería Enthroned, however. He is especially clear on how the portability of Orisha worship in Santería operates in contested terrains in the United States. He rightly characterizes how Orisha religions are made to mitigate tensions and conflations over the "ownership" of African religion among Latinos and African-Americans by the use of the "symbolics" of power and social status. …