Thickening our own Ajiaco
Dina Zingaro is a summer intern from Swarthmore College who was inspired by the exhibition, Ajiaco: The Stirrings of the Cuban Soul. This is her interpretation of what she saw while walking through the exhibition.
Ajiaco, which means “a rich stew consisting of a large variety of ingredients,” is the Museum’s latest exhibition, closing on August 14. In tandem with one another, the works characterize the Cuban culture as a product of “syncretism,” which is an attempt to reconcile contrary beliefs. The Cuban soul becomes a fusion of practices and beliefs of various schools of thought such as Catholicism of the Spaniards, the spirituality of the Yoruba slaves and their cultural traditions from Africa, and the Chinese indentured servants who brought Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Interestingly, the works selected suit the eclecticism of Ajiaco’s theme since several of the mixed media creations extend beyond the customary materials of canvas and paint to also incorporate less traditional materials such as corn, candy, cinnamon sticks, and feathers. (My brief description hardly does the exhibit justice – you must come and see for yourself!)
While exploring the exhibit, I noticed that even with its great diversity of “ingredients” in the works, the importance of connections and nourishment underlies most of the collection. Artist Manuel Mendive illustrates this idea of connection between humans, animals, and the natural world in a striking scene in his painting Se Alimenta mi Espíritu (My Soul is Nourished) where a group of animals and humans appear to flow and fuse into one another.
Amid the busy scene, a small child receives nourishment at the center as he leans upwards to drink from the utters of a cow, which could also plausibly be a human since a man’s head emerges from the cow’s back. This mysterious form continues below and morphs into a human positioned on their hands and knees, serving as the stepping stool for the small child drinking from the cow’s utters. There is an undeniable connectivity between the individual figures as animal nourishes human and human supports human (i.e. the crouching human helps the child reach the utters). Even the landscape’s foliage appears to encourage this idea of interdependence as it seems to embrace the figures and weave its way around the contours of the animals and humans. Such an emphasis on the links and nurturing relationships between the human, animal, and natural worlds permeates much of the exhibit.
Just around the gallery corner, in his painting Hijos de Obbatala (Children of Obbatala), Cepp Selgas further explores the power of making such connections by employing a familiar image of nourishment: a mother breastfeeding a child. The painting immediately reminded me of the Escher tessellations I created in elementary school art class where a shape is repeated (which in Hijos de Obbatala, is a baby’s head) and the void between its contours becomes another repeated shape.
Reflecting Yoruba religious beliefs, the repeating head of a child suckling a mother’s breast personifies the teaching about Obbatala, an Orisha (a spirit or deity that embodies one of the manifestations of Olodumare or God in the Yoruba spiritual system), who creates all human bodies. Depicted as a mother and dressed in his traditional white cloth, Obbatala is the owner of all Ori (literally meaning “head”), which refers to an individual’s spiritual intuition and destiny. According to Yoruba tradition, a human being works with the Orishas to develop his or her Ori in order to attain a more balanced character with the hope of attaining alignment with their divine self. Thus, to know one’s Ori is to know one’s self…something we like to call “self understanding.”
By likening the process of gaining self-identity in the Yoruba religious tradition (alignment with one’s Ori) to an explicit act of nourishing, in this case breastfeeding, Selgas references the deeper emotional and psychological nourishment that mothers often provide to their children. Therefore, Obbatala is not merely an “owner” of human bodies, but is a builder and molder of the individual characters.
Alongside Mendive’s My Soul is Nourished, Selgas echoes the idea of connection, but also stresses the power of such relationships – whether with people, animals, places or a god – to both influence and nourish our characters. A well-known Yoruba proverb echoes the importance of crafting individual identity: “Ori la ba bo, a ba f’orisa sile.” (“It is the inner self we ought to venerate, and let divinity be.”)
Whatever these personal connections may be, they inspire, mold values, spark imagination, and seep into choices and actions; to nourish them is only to thicken the broth of one’s personal Ajiaco.