The Yoruba, Philosophy, and Art

The Yoruba religion, whether it is called Yoruba, Lucumi, Santeria, or Candomble, has overcome seemingly insurmountable odds in order to survive and thrive in the several hundred years since it was brought to the Americas on slaving ships. As Robert Farris Thompson writes in Flash of the Spirit, “The Yoruba remain the Yoruba precisely because their culture provides them with ample philosophic means for comprehending, and ultimately transcending, the powers that periodically threaten to dissolve them.”1 Devastatingly, we still live in a world where systems of oppression not unlike slavery still exist, and where we must still overcome seemingly insurmountable odds in order to survive. In a time where the most philosophy we have for transcending the powers that threaten to dissolve us is, “the market will provide,” a religion such as the Yoruba that has survived so much and continues to thrive and a philosophy that can help us put our suffering into context feels radical, countercultural, and necessary. The survival of the Yoruba religion has entailed, among many other things, the blending of the African-based religion with elements of Catholicism while simultaneously strongly retaining the Yoruba philosophies that have been present in Yorubaland for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

The religion does not reside in the hallowed halls of a cathedral or a temple, but in the home, on the street corner, in the stroke of a paintbrush or in the curve of a sculpted work, and in the palms of a drummer. The art and the ritual creation involved in the practice of Yoruba is as much a part of the worship of the orisas as prayer or supplication, and indeed Thompson writes, “Yoruba art returns the idea of heaven to mankind wherever the ancient ideal attitudes are genuinely manifested.”2  In this way, we see that not only is artistic creation essential to the worship of the orisas, but the religion is an artistic practice, a philosophy, and a way of life, in itself. Every pose of a sculpted person, every etched line on a bowl or a pot, each color and fabric chosen for a ceremonial dress is overflowing with meaning, and understanding this meaning requires a completely different type of literacy. The art created by Yoruba practitioners would be meaningless without a philosophical context, but neither would the philosophy be fully complete without artistic interpretation. In this way we see that the art created in the service of the Yoruba religion is not supplemental to the practice, but integral; as Babatunde Lawal writes, “art, to the Yoruba, is a vital part of being.”3

Like a banner at a rally, or a poster advocating for revolution, the art created by the Yoruba people is meant to have life and to be used, whether that function is practical, didactic, ritual, or all of the above. This conception of what created works do in the world differs vastly from western conceptions of high art that dictate that art is to be hung on a wall and stared at, not to be touched or disturbed. Artists have been using art-making in the service of resisting oppression for years, and by coming to a deeper understanding of Yoruba artistic practices, we can begin to understand why artmaking is so crucial to comprehending and resisting oppression.

God in the Yoruba religion has many names that vary by region, one of which is Olodumare, who is, “regarded as the source of existence and the wielder of the power (ase) that activates and sustains the universe.”4,5  However, Yoruba religious scholar John Mason describes that Olodumare rules in absentia and in his/her place rule the orisas. The orisas are considered deities in their own right, but they are unique from the gods of other polytheistic religions in that, “these deities are specific parts or forces, selected to exist within God, which govern different parts of the universe.”6  In other words, when a practitioner of the Yoruba religion is worshipping an orisa such as Yemoya or Shango, they are really worshipping a specific aspect of Olodumare that is manifested in the orisa. Worship of the orisas is a “reciprocal affair,” with the orisas offering their spiritual protection and their “support in the existential struggle” in return for a practitioner’s worship, prayers, and sacrifice.7 The idea that orisas are merely different parts of the same god, according to preeminent scholar Babatunde Lawal, “not only minimizes rivalry among them and aggressive proselytization in Yoruba religion, but encourages flexibility and creativity.”8 This creativity makes room for an individuality in how one worships the orisas and how one expresses faith and devotion, which is not only radical insomuch as it literally pertains to religious practice but in the undercurrent of values that infuses this practice.

Art and aesthetics are not only a part of Yoruba religious practice, but undergird the Yoruba religious philosophy and the language used to describe this philosophy. Robert Farris Thompson writes, “The Yoruba assess everything aesthetically—from the taste and color of a yam to the qualities of a dye, to the dress and deportment of a woman or man.”9 In this way, we see that aesthetics plays a major role in the lives of the Yoruba people, and consequently has also been translated into the way the religion is practiced in the Americas. There are many Yoruba words that describe values that are held in high esteem both in religious and secular life. One of these words is ashe, which, as Thompson describes, is, “the power-to-make-things-happen, God’s own enabling light rendered accessible to men and women.”10 While as Miguel “Willie” Ramos writes, “In western terms, there is no equivalent for this concept,”11 ashe can be manifest in a gaze, in attitude and action, and in art. Thompson writes that “a thing or a work of art that has ashe transcends ordinary questions about its makeup and confinements: it is divine force incarnate.”12 Lawal adds to this, writing, “because of the special skills involved in its creation, art is often associated with the supernatural and thought to embody a kind of ashe.13 Yoruba art imbued with ashe is one of the most tangible ways that it can be “rendered accessible to men and women,”14 and therefore is important to understanding the nature of ashe, and how one can manifest it in one’s own life.

Not only does the art itself contain ashe within it simply by existing and being beautiful, but the values represented by the art can be used as a teaching tool for how to manifest ashe in in life. The Yoruba concepts of iwa and itutu, meaning character and coolness respectively, are terms that refer to both aesthetic processes as well as human processes. Iwa, according to Thompson, is, “a force infusing physical beauty with everlastingness.”15 In other words, it is not just how something looks that is important, but the interplay between physical beauty and something more. A piece of art, like a human, can be the most radiantly beautiful thing ever seen, but if it lacks iwa, if it does not espouse the right moral values or behaviors, or teach the right lessons, its beauty becomes irrelevant. As Thompson writes, iwa “is another crucially important consideration in Yoruba religion and art.”16

The second term, itutu, refers to a kind of “mystic coolness,” an integral part of having good character (iwa) and is often understood in aesthetic terms. Much of Yoruba art is informed by itutu, mostly in the form of “representations of idealized action.”17 For example, traits that are considered emblematic of itutu—such as generosity, “the highest form of morality in Yoruba traditional terms,”—are often rendered in Yoruba art as kneeling figures, figures offering vessels, or a woman gesturing to her breasts or womb.18 From this we see that itutu not only lies in the art object, but in the behaviors or values being symbolized by that creative work. Thompson’s discussion of Yoruba philosophy serves to show not only that aesthetics and visual representation is extremely important to the Yoruba, but also that those aesthetics and depictions are meaningless if they are not connected to higher morals and values. We see that these interconnected terms iwa and itutu, both ways of striving towards ashe, are an intertwining of art, philosophy, morals, and religion, each deepening and nuancing the others. This understanding of art not as a luxury but as a necessary component to practicing religion and daily living pushes back against western narratives of art that dictate that “high art” is beautiful but non-functional, disparate from the daily lives of real people.

By understanding how Yoruba philosophy is artistically rendered, we see that secular and religious art has a didactic role—there is something to be learned both in the postures and poses of figures and the most minute of details. Even art objects such as vessels and trays that do not display human forms have elements from which religious and secular philosophy can be gleaned, if only the viewer knows how to read these signs. Thompson, describing a vessel found in a market in Ibadan, notes a square on the side of the vessel that represents, “the four corners of the earth” as well as, “three concentric circles within the square that are the triple sign of the Yoruba goddess Earth. Additionally he observes a “strong zigzag pattern in relief that suggest the coming down of ashe in the form of lightning.”19 The vessel described here has two functions: to hold liquid and to relate Yoruba philosophical and religious beliefs. While this is just one example, this mentality and approach to making objects, either practical or artisanal, permeates both the Yoruba culture in Africa as well as the cultures in the Americas that were formed on the Yoruba’s foundations. Art is heavily didactic; it is not only something to be looked at, but something to be used and learned from.

Obatala, an important orisa in the Yoruba pantheon is considered to be the “creator deity.”20 John Mason writes, “He is the impregnating creator and she is the incubating shaper of human beings which she forms out of clay.”21 Characterizing Obatala in this way, as an orisa of creation, deepens our understanding of the ways in which the Yoruba incorporate art into their lives, moving from literal creation, to metaphysical creation. Lawal, in describing a Yoruba creation myth, writes, “When Olodumare decided to create the first human being, he commissioned the artist deity Obatala to mold the physical body (ara) from divine clay,” and in this way, the Yoruba people have an understanding that, “the human body is a divinely inspired work of art.”22 This idea is radical in both a secular and religious sense. The explicit use of the word “art” to describe the formation of the human body resists a standardization of what a body should look like, as well as resisting the creation of an idealized type of body. The word “art” implies individuality and difference. One could draw the same shape one hundred times and no two of the drawings would look the same. It also places value on the body in a way that western religions and philosophies often do not, and in fact much of Christian theological thought is devoted to shunning the body in both form and function. Just as their is individual expression in how one worships in the Yoruba religion, there is also individuation of human forms, an acknowledgement that every body is different, as no two works of art are the same.

The creation of altars to the orisas in one’s home is an artistic process unto itself, and as Lawal writes that, “uses of art in orisa worship reveals three main functions: the honorific, representative, and communicative.”23 Each worshipper is free to adorn their altar with the materials and objects that they think best honors and represents their patron orisa, and Lawal describes that the orisas themselves have artistic tastes similar to those of humans and that, “art is therefore used not only to attract [the orisas] attention but also to dignify their images.”24  Typically an altar to an orisa has a hierarchic arrangement of ritual ornamental objects, with the most sacred symbol of the orisa in the center.25 It is easy to distinguish the art for one orisa from the art for another, as each orisa is associated with certain iconographic motifs, colors, and fabrics. For example, Sango is almost always represented as having a double-headed ax or ose, Obatala is always depicted in white, Oshun is often holding a mirror or a fan, and representations of Babaluaye usually include raffia. Lawal writes that while in most instances, the most sacred objects on an altar are nonfigurative and consist of things such as a collection of sanctified stones, certain orisas such as Sango, Eshu, and Yemoja are anthropomorphized, “to emphasize their humanity and enable their worshipers to deal with them in human terms.”26 Though the specific objects and motifs associated does not change from one altar to the next, worshippers have complete freedom over how those objects are made, how they are displayed, and how minimal or grand the altar is. Here we see how worship and the use and decoration of altars is deeply personal, while the values and meanings embodied in the motifs and iconography are universal.

Another example of this freedom of artistic expression within worship is with the special thrones that are made specifically for important occasions, such as the cumpleano, the anniversary of a priest or priestess’ initiation into the religion. David H. Brown describes that these special altars are consecrated to both the patron orisa that the priest or priestess receives upon initiation, and the additional addimu-orichas that they receive thereafter.27 He writes, “The intention of the birthday is to present the orichas formally in the individual priest’s house in order that they receive respectful tributes and salutations.”28 Because the orisas on this particular altar may change over time as new addimu-orichas are added, the cumpleano altar can be understood as something that, “embodies an emergent spiritual and personal biography.”29 The objects that are featured on this altar that are dedicated to each of the orisas represented, and these objects may be swapped out and replaced from year to year as some objects become old and worn out, or the priestess or priest’s aesthetic tastes simply evolve. Brown writes, “Decisions about what objects to make anew, what objects to replace, and which orichas will receive the new objects are not arbitrary . . . the decisions are are influenced by the importance of each oricha in the personal ritual history . . . and by the aesthetic quality and conditions of their extant objects.”30

The creation of thrones for cumpleanos and other special events is another further example of how the religion allows for, and in many senses requires, improvisation and freedom of artistic expression. Some elements of how an orisa is represented on an altar, such as color palette, are not open to interpretation as, “the colors invoke, embody and emanate the spiritual presence of the orichas and the ancestors, and are associated concretely with objects and substances of ritual use and healing,” while, the fabric, hue, and other such variables are completely up to the discretion of the priestess or priest.31 The cumpleano throne is just one instance of many in which art is integral to the ritual process, and not only that, but how personal aesthetic taste informs how the objects are made, and consequently how the orisa itself is honored and worshipped.

Lawal ultimately reflects at the end of his article that, “art not only links the human with the divine, the visible with the invisible, the physical with the metaphysical and the present with the past; it reinforces the human confidence in the future, affirming, nourishing, and sustaining the human spirit.”32 Throughout the religion, whether it is practiced in Yorubaland, Brazil, or Cuba, we see the multiplicity of ways that art nourishes the human spirit that go far beyond the act of artmaking itself. The philosophy that is foundational to the religion, with words like iwa and itutu, meaning “character”  and “coolness,” are wrapped up in both a type of aesthetics that is valued by the religion but are also deeply entrenched with moral values and behaviors. Consequently, not only does Yoruba art embody moral values, but those who act out those moral values such as generosity in their everyday lives embody art in themselves.

The idea of the self as a work of art is also present in the creation myth of the Yoruba. Obatala, the orisa of creation and creativity, is said to have molded the ara or the human form out of divine clay before the insertion of the spirit, emi, by Oludumare into the form that Obatala had created.33 From this story we see that the human body according to Yoruba religious philosophy is a work of art in itself. Moreover, not only is freedom of artistic expression valued in the Yoruba religion, but freedom of bodily expression as well, allowing the body to be centered in a way that is not typical in most religions.

Each of the many orisas are represented specifically to convey something of the orisa’s personality, domain, or their own aesthetic preferences, much in the same way Yoruba art is used to convey the values of iwa and itutu. Along with this didacticism, comes a kind of functionality. Something being pretty is not enough, it must be able to be used, whether that use is as a teaching tool to learn about the orisas and Yoruba philosophy, or merely as a practical object. As Lawal writes, “the beauty of a carved stool lies in a combination of its design and structure/functional qualities. Conversely, an elegantly carved but fragile stool is worthless.”34 This drastically challenges our perception of what art is in contrast to the way the west conceives of  “high art” as something that is to be admired from afar behind an electronic curtain of security. To the Yoruba, didactic and practical functionality does not degrade the value of the art itself, and as much love and care is put into the creation of the object as is put into the use of the object, whether it lives on a cumpleano throne or in the kitchen.

These truths and concepts about how art is conceived of and used by the Yoruba people and those who are members of the African Diaspora are important because they have been so categorically excluded from western intellectual canon. We are taught in school from kindergarten to senior year of college that “good” art functions as one thing and is one way only. We walk right by the African wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in our haste to get to the “real” art—that which comes from Europe and is made by white men. By exploring the what art is and how it exists outside of the walls of the academy and the museum, we can imagine not only different ways of creating and relating to art but a different way of being. In studying Yoruba religion and art we can find ways to understand and resist oppression, to relate to ourselves and our community, and with our natural and physical world. Art, like the many orisas in the Yoruba pantheon, can be a tool to guide us through life. We live in a world marred by violence, poverty, colonialism, and systemic oppression on multiple fronts, and while it may not seem like an African religious and cultural practice has the answers to these problems, the very act of uncovering this knowledge that has been so ignored by western thought and questioning the lenses through which we view the world is a crucial step to dismantling the oppressive structures that bind us.

  1. Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and African American Art and Philosophy (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), 16.
  2. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 16.
  3. Babatunde Lawal, “Art in Yoruba Religion,” in Santeria Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art, edited by Arturo Lindsay (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), 33.
  4. John Mason, Orisa: New World, Black Gods (New York: Yoruba Theological Archministry, 2016), 1.
  5. Lawal, “Art in Yoruba Religion,” 5.
  6. Mason, Orisa, 2.
  7. Mason, Orisa, 7.
  8. Lawal, “Art in Yoruba Religion,” 7.
  9. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 5.
  10. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 5.
  11. Miguel “Willie” Ramos, “Afro-Cuban Orisha Worship,” in Santeria Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art, edited by Arturo Lindsay (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), 59.
  12. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 7
  13. Lawal, “Art in Yoruba Religion,” 7.
  14. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 5.
  15. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 9.
  16. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 9.
  17. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 9.
  18. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 13.
  19. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 6.
  20. Mason, Orisa, 47.
  21. Mason, Orisa, 47.
  22. Lawal, “Art in Yoruba Religion,” 8; 9.
  23. Lawal, “Art in Yoruba Religion,” 12.
  24. Lawal, “Art in Yoruba Religion,” 12.
  25. Lawal, “Art in Yoruba Religion,” 13.
  26. Lawal, “Art in Yoruba Religion,” 20.
  27. David H. Brown, “Toward an Ethnoaesthetic of Santeria Ritual Arts,” in Santeria Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art, edited by Arturo Lindsay (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), 90.
  28. Brown, “Toward an Ethnoaesthetic of Santaria Ritual Arts,” 90.
  29. Brown, “Toward an Ethnoaesthetic of Santaria Ritual Arts,” 93.
  30. Brown, “Toward an Ethnoaesthetic of Santaria Ritual Arts,” 94.
  31. Brown, “Toward an Ethnoaesthetic of Santaria Ritual Arts,” 100.
  32. Lawal, “Art in Yoruba Religion,” 33.
  33. Lawal, “Art in Yoruba Religion,” 8.
  34. Lawal, “Art in Yoruba Religion,” 8.
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