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« Moving Mountains: AfroCuban Arts, Faith & Community | Main | Obini Odara Workshop Series »
Monday
Oct312011

Our Creative Process: Eggun, History and Vision

I began writing the script for our first project Dancing Graves in the beginning of 2008. At the time I definitely didn't think of what I was doing as playwriting nor of the project as a theater piece. Thankfully it has been beautiful to continue building with that same cast who have supported the first snapshot of a vision. I am truly blessed.

The artistic process is challenging and should reflect our own layered experiences.

Much of my motivation to write this story was the freshness of my iyaworaje, which blessed me with healing from the very painful experiences I had as an Afrodescendiente, woman, thinker, and organizer in the Midwest. The decision to tell the story of a Afro-Cuban family in the heart of the Westside, where my paternal grandmother migrated to escape racial violence and oppression in the Deep South, creatively explored Afro-Diaspora connections in the ways I embody them: thus, connecting my grandma's experiences with those of my Cuban/Bahamian maternal grandparents who immigrated to Afro-New York, where I was born and raised.

I wonder what my history sounded like, looked like; no one ever gave me the pleasure of laying it all out at once. Like our ancestors, our histories are presented in broken, fragmented parts. After all, I could hear it walking down the isolated streets of the Westside by Cermak, in the inflection of my grandmothers instructions to get a plant out of her garden in a place where many assume nothing can be grown nor cultivated. Where there are green plants taller than myself, and I can emerge with a white flower that I was ordered to "wrench off dat branch" to cover a wound, as band-aids are taboo for our kind of Mississippians.

My grandmother is a Mississippi Osainista, and surely herbal knowledge and timely predictions make her one among the greatest espiritistas in Chicago. Indeed my African pasts merge, they are so fluid they run through my blood and body water crashing into one another, and I can imagine mi abuelo jugando domino smoking a cigar mountin' Siete Rayo in grandma's southern baptist church. I puzzled the Chicago ocha/palo/spiritist community at first where folks mounted by "spirits" would racially profile me at many a misa, assuming my skin color meant I couldn't understand Spanish -- leading to entertaining experiences, but surely got me thinking. Yea.

How could one be a spiritist or priest/ess without acknowledging an African past? How could one practice ocha or Spiritism and despite being Latino/a not have any black friends...wasn't that problematic? Did it matter, or was I "just making a big deal" out of it. If we couldn't talk about it, I had hoped, maybe if I can hear my history, listen to my eggun, I can begin to tell some part of my story, our story.

All the rich sounds, touches and gazes of beauty during the sacred rites of making an ocha and birthing an iyawo were fresh in my mind then. My motherly/daughter exchange with an elder who was crowned at 4 years old, now resting on the floor of the throne, she shares that she is a great-grandmother with over 60 years in the priesthood, and that when she was the first woman ordered to be initiated in palo in her family, it was the real sha-bang! The mirroring eyes that gazed with love and rememberance during my Dia de Medio, as one cannot see themselves dressed in the outfit of the orisha they were just initiated or crowned to; nor can you see your reflection in a mirror, although many iyawos being intiated in these times cannot escape accidental glimpses of ourselves (in the urban U.S.) A reflection in a shiny downtown window reveals what others may see, remaining a mystery to us.

These challenges represent the daily struggles the iyaworaje and our journey as priests/esses present to all, as well as the beauty of our spiritual culture. While many cling to notions of tradition, correctness, uniformity and what is "right," I've always felt the immense power of our practices exists in its flexibilities, in its grey areas and incredible openess. In response to the violent nature of European colonization and the transatlantic slave trade, and their aftermath, how fitting that we Afrodescendants would resist oppression in creating belief systems where collective decision-making reigns; where values and cultural survival were not threatned by varying ritual styles, customs, languages and outlooks.

Today, how much time/energy is lost arguing over things that were created to be different in the first place?

This cultural process has occured at every generation of Afro-Cuban history as well as for all Afrodescendants. Stephan Palmié refers to this process as "ethnogenesis" in Cuba in describing how multiple ethnic groups: who as multilingual, multicustomed West Africans did not initially view themselves as one people, thus creating "neo-African ethnic identities" (p.63 Brown, Santeria Enthroned) reflected in socio-religious institutions, cabildos. Perhaps we can further complicate ethnogenesis -- as surely this process is ongoing, as now many initiates have formed institutions and businesses rooted in a premise of Yoruba or Lukumi identity and being Afro-Cuban or even an Afrodescendant no longer defines who can start such organizations nor who produces our present leading ideologies around what and who is Lukumi. As an emerging generation of Yoruba and Lukumi practitioners within an International Diaspora, we are constantly reflecting/defining who we are collectively through Our Creative Process.

Given this, LukumiArts focuses on Our Creative Process as a primary method for creating performances rather than a commercially viable end-product. A process that blurs lines between performance and our sacred spaces, and spirit reigns. A process where political, economic and social justice explorations are infused with color, energy, and beauty bought to life by the aro for Yemaya or in chorus responses to espiritista songs. A process where we can be moved to tears to re-consider the conditions of the plantation in recalling our contemporary moments of otherness, abuse, torment, fear, intimidation, silence and rejection. A process where we cannot identify, locate nor package ourselves racially nor within national identities alone, our bodies of color proving the survival of what should have been impossible, with all the odds stacked up against us. A process where we can be honest to explore what has been lost, stolen, and also hidden from us; oceans connecting our ports of origin where family histories have gaps, names of relatives are lost, and recessive genes reveal features whose origins we cannot exactly pinpoint, but we still are, still be, still free.

Indeed West Africans and their descendants who became Afro-Cubans (and also Afro-Brazilians, Trinidadians, Haitians, etc.) in the realms of the ingenios, sugar plantation cities, valued artistry -- reflected in the building of thrones, beading, detailed trajes y ropa de santo and in creating not just functional ritual spaces, yet beautiful ones, alive with color, honor and feeling. Given those circumstances of enslavement, one must revere those ancestors who swallowed fundamentos or hid secrets in the china cabinets of the plantation "masters" as the very people who served, cleaned and prepared dishes for the fine china they owned. We took incredible risks to enjoy ritual objects we now causally refer to, such as soperas for our orishas. Cloths, linens, and any fabrics for outfits and thrones must have been luxurious commodities for most enslaved and even free workers, but they nonetheless acquired them in the least expected circumstances beyond our imaginary -- all actions that embody a degree of sacrifice we must all be grateful for.

We are a courageous, beautiful people.

It is that beauty that I knew would bring our culture to life on stage to touch the person who is initiated and the novice alike. A healing power that our nation is so in need of beyond sacred ritual spaces alone, which too are thriving. In creating that first project we had conversations and breakthroughs around aesthetics and representing our culture. All actors were not initiated or practitioners either, and they too wanted to be accountable on these same levels.

Among a cast of majority Afro-Cubans, Afro-Puerto Ricans and Afro-Americans, it was beautiful to see performers communicate and embrace who didn't speak the same language. It was beautiful to see how our narrative transformed with sharing experiences, and to witness those who had never had any formal arts training to work alongside a master artist. I felt our interactions, in segregated Chicago, where Afro-Latin@s are present yet incredibly silenced, in a divided ocha community in terms of practices, race and culture -- were truly revolutionary. The majority of feedback we received did express this sentiment. Just our presence together, I am still sure, meant something profound.

This experience definitely rooted Our Creative Process which restores hope that we can affect issues some say will never change -- like the lack of resources for Afrodescendant master folkloric artists, and our societal responses to natural disasters, racism, death, aging and diverse spiritual ways of life.

Our Creative Process presents us with those same challenges that we confront in the iyaworaje and also in our streets, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, parks, and on city trains and buses, even when avoiding one another. Yes we will clash, we will experience conflicts, differences and strains yet we can also heal, make-up, reach common ground, and negotiate with that same magical creative energy.

LukumiArts was birthed by envisioning the power of Our Creative Process in leading us to social change via performances of our silenced stories, strongly rooted in our spirituality. As we push towards that vision in our educational and performance work, we are growing.

Since then we performed in She Be Hip Hop by Sage Morgan Hubbard, built an installation for Chicago's First Life is Living Festival, performed for HIV/AIDS awareness day hosted by La Casa de Don Pedro in Newark, for Latino Heritage Month at the Brooklyn School of Music, at Afro-Latin@ Institute reception and at the National Council of La Raza's Youth Summitt, and we've recorded a live-uncut rumba session with rumberos from all over NY. This year we launched Obini Odara, a series on Afro-Cuban women contributions to our community, and have been editing our first video collections which will share the legacy of our collective's spiritual elder, the late Andrés Chacón, an omo aña, babalorisha, palero and Abakua initiate who lived in Pogolotty, Cuba.

Now, many have begun to inquire about our work. What is it exactly that you do?

Steeped in communities of Yoruba religious musicians, practitioners, social justice advocates, hip-hop educators, theatre and performance artists, and all the very different, quirky spaces we embody, our vision is to create breathing, living work that bridges communities. This is the invisible natured work that defines not only what we do, but also who we are.

It's not about producing work frequently to show we are "busy", not about creating a product for our brand that everyone can jump on board with, not about dominating a segment of interest in Afro-Cuban or Afro-Diasporic arts, not about the commercialization that seems to be seeping into every aspect of our lives today. This is about collective healing, telling stories that wouldn't otherwise have a voice, creating collaborations and casts that wouldn't have otherwise shared the same space, embracing non-initiates of African descent to introduce a new sense of Afro-identity and culture. We are pushing for a space, and to spark a dialogue, an honest one.

Our process of storytelling and performance cannot be grassroots and organic without taking time to grow, to reflect and in the absence of a true commitment to supporting all of dope, dope arts, activist, healing, educating work out there. You all inspire us.

The patience to guide Our Creative Process to be as much about personal accountability and reflection I owe to my father, ibae bae tonu, who has recently transitioned to live with the ancestors, and my to crown, Maferefun Obatalá. They feed my art and creativity in divine ways, and there are so many stories to tell. The questions are: with who will we work and learn, how we will communicate the messages of our community, what gifts can we share that leave lasting memories for both our audiences and performers? As we struggle to build true solidarity through the miscommunications, divisions and hang-ups, our ancestors smile, shining that divine light on the less traveled path, so that we may be blessed to stumble, grow and blossom. Ashe.

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