Martin is one of the five modern-day collectors selected by the Royal Anthropological Institute to take part in the Horniman Collecting Initiative. Here he blogs about the commission of a new object for our Anthropology Collections.
I first applied for the RAI Horniman Collecting Initiative so I could work with a Cuban priest of Chinese descent who is, among many other things, a gifted Lucumí bead artist.
Lucumí (also known as Santería, also known as Regla de Ocha) is one of the most prominent religions in Cuba. It is characterized by its recognition of both Catholic saints and West African (Yoruba) deities known as orishas.
My research has shown that there is not only Catholic or European elements to the orisha, but also significant Chinese ones.
Like other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, Cuba recruited more than 125,000 young Chinese men through indenture following the collapse of slavery. They began arriving from 1847 to work on the sugar plantations. By sharing the same living and working spaces with people of African descent and mixed-race heritage, their cultures met and mixed. Many stayed permanently and intermarried.
I am interested in how these Chinese immigrants and their Afro-Sino Cuban descendants influenced Afro-Cuban religions. These Chinese influences have not been subject to any serious academic attention before. My research explores the lives of contemporary Afro-Chinese priests and practitioners, their collective memories and related material culture.
Many of the orisha priests I interviewed of Chinese-Cuban descent are also skilled artisans. They produce captivating religious artifacts that blend West African and Chinese art forms and crafting techniques. Stunning wooden sculptures and beadwork pieces frequently adorn orisha shrines and altars in the Lukumi religion.
José Francisco Ung, Omi Atorunwa, also known as ‘El Chinito de Regla’ lives in Havana and is has been initiated as an orisha priest for more than 47 years. I approached José and had asked him what item he would like to make for the Horniman’s collection.
I wanted José to decide what object he felt he would like to contribute. He decided that he would like to make objects related to his protective orisha, Yemaya, a deity of the sea and of motherhood.
Over a couple of days, José sketched out a few designs for possible items. Among the candidates, one of them was a beaded and lidded urn. The vessel is used to house the consecrated emblems of the orisha following priesthood initiation. It is also is the focus of worship and sacrifice.
José came up with four different designs, each distinct, and whose symbolism is related to the worship of Yemaya.
Unfortunately, the beads needed to complete such a project are not available in Cuba. After I left, I purchased the beads and they have now made their way back to José so that he can finish his piece for the Horniman’s collection.
I am returning to Cuba this summer and will further document the process of making the piece selected for the museum, as well as delivering it to the Horniman itself.
My next post will follow after my trip to Cuba. I look forward to sharing with you what José has crafted.