Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Transgressive Rituals: Constructing the Santera's Body in the Photography of María Pérez Bravo

Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Transgressive Rituals: Constructing the Santera's Body in the Photography of María Pérez Bravo

Article excerpt

Life in heaven cannot be pleasant, otherwise people could not live so long and come back so quickly.

Yoruba proverb

The body can be regarded as a kind of hinge or threshold: it is placed between the psychic of a lived interiority and a more sociopolitical exteriority that produces interiority though the inscription of the body's outer surface.

Elizabeth Grosz, Space, Time, and Perversion

Docile bodies have long been objects of cultural, philosophical, and religious fascination; while, unfortunately, still maintaining their status as objects of intervention, reflection, or training. To rethink the body beyond docility implies the manner in which we think of subjectivity itself. Not an easy task, one which philosophers, cultural critics, and artists are more often embarking upon. The body as a particular site of subjectivity is a major concern in the photography of María Pérez Bravo. Pérez Bravo's work explores the representation of the female body within the symbolic system of Santería, and articulates an unthought of discursive space: the body of the santera. Pérez Bravo portrays santeras-female practitioners of Santería-as objects of fascination, and at the same time, she constructs a somatic imaginary that questions their location within Santería's symbolic system.

Santería, as well as many other syncretic religions, has functioned and continues to function as a site of resistance against eurocentric hegemonic discourses. Santería has its roots in African spiritual Yoruba traditions, which were brought to the Caribbean by African slaves, and were then diversified in the Americas as Santería, or Regla de Ocha, Ifá, and Candomble in Brazil. The similarity between Santería and Catholicism relies almost solely on re-naming African deities with the names of Catholic saints. This definition poses Santería as a counterpart of Catholicism, thus disregarding the trangressive power of discursive difference. The present study will consider Santería not as a cultural fusion of two religious systems, but rather as a site of organic resistance.

Santería's practices reappropriate a hegemonic religious discourse in order to apply it to the Afro-Caribbean lived experience, thus disrupting long established body/mind dichotomies. Gender binaries are still too often manipulated in order to establish hierarchical distinctions in Santería's discursive realm. Pérez Bravo's construction of the gendered body draws attention to two aspects of ritual performance: interpretation and sacrifice. During the rituals of interpretation, the body appears as a fixed site of enunciation, while sacrificial performances display the plasticity of the subject's formation. By fetishizing the mutilated santera-her own body-Pérez Bravo constructs a space of enunciation and creatively transforms Santería's discursive realm. Hence, it can be argued that Pérez Bravo's photography is a form of organic resistance that counters Santería's gender hegemony.

Born in Havana, Cuba, Pérez Bravo is considered a notable representative of the Latin American genre of fotografía construida, or constructed photography. This genre looks at the photograph as a carefully composed document. Luis Camnitzer, in his book New Art of Cuba, describes Pérez Bravo's constructed photography as a process of thought in which concepts and ideas are formalized within the parameters of a photographic frame (103). These photographs reconstruct the santera's body through excluding frames, mutilated body parts, and prosthetics. The female subject (Pérez Bravo herself) floats in an undefined space, and the decapitation and missing limbs generate a sense of incompleteness. Furthermore, her unconstrained spatial location, as well as her mutilated body, point to the notion of a decentered subjectivity.

The artist's images work on two levels simultaneously: she seeks social and political recognition of women's bodies existing within a particular context (the "exterior," as my epigraph from Grosz suggests), and she also rejects her position as a complete self (as Grosz's emphasis on "interiority" suggests). …

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