SANTIAGO RODRÍGUEZ OLAZABAL 

(Havana, 1955)

 

 

 

When Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal entered the artistic scene in the mid-1980s, the knowledge of Ifá began gradually to move beyond the esoteric domain, where it had remained under the sole control of the babalawos from way back, and started to circulate within the more liberal artistic circles. The knowledge of Ifá became the subject of public exhibits and art criticism being reproduced in catalogues and magazines, thereby becoming part of the art market. Something similar happened with Santería, Palo Monte and Abakuá. This situation may not be very common outside the Cuban context, above all with the high level of professionalism and articulation of contemporary artistic languages. More typically, these traditions are reflected by the so-called popular or self-taught artists, as in the case of Vodouin Haiti or Rastafarianismin Jamaica and other Caribbean countries.

 

Thus far, the Regla Arará (more frequent in the province of Matanzas), Vodú (of Haitian origin and practiced in different areas of Camaguey and Oriente) and the various forms of spiritualism, especially espiritismo cruzao (‘crossed spiritualism’ practiced in the eastern provinces of Cuba), have not had the same impact on our visual arts, although they do preserve their aesthetic-symbolic value and artistic expression in their respective rituals. Perhaps it is only a matter of time for some of those expressions to enter the contemporary Afro-Cuban art world. 

 

Since all are cultural as well as religious traditions, the transition from one system to another has not been incongruent at all, nor does it seem to violate the distinctive secrets of ritual practices. However, Rodriguez Olazabal’s works reflect a high conceptual level and a deep knowledge. As an Orula or Orunmila priest, that is to say, as babalawo (in Yoruba, "father of the secret"), he has had access to a great number of ideas and information on many cosmogonic, philosophical and mystic aspects of the Ifa religion. This knowledge has up to now remained far from the public domain, for example the concept of Orí, or personal divinity, or of deities such as Iyamí Oshoronga or Ajé Shaluga, has remained practically unknown by most of our intellectuals and art specialists. Such specialists are more familiar with the popular divinities of the Yoruba pantheon (Obbatalá, Yemayá, Elegguá, Changó and Oshún). Although it is true that Olazábal comes from a long-standing religious family, to which these notions and African deities were perhaps known, we cannot discard the influence of what some term the "re-Africanization" or "Yorubization" of these religions, especially of Santeria and Ifa. Since these religions had their original integrity affected by syncreticism with Catholicism during colonial times and the long disconnection from Africa, much information has begun to be recovered [i] in recent years.

 

The causes of our current ignorance ofmany aspects ofthese religions of African origin deserve a brief comment. The Yoruba cultural tradition, as well as the Kongo (Bantu) and the Carabalí, among others, have been present in our country since the 16th century, when the bearers arrived in Cuba in ships to become slaves of the Spanish invaders. More than five long centuries of conflicting coexistence on our territory did not allow these traditions an equal footing with those imported from Europe and North America. Despite the gradual progress made since the abolition of slavery, the independence from the Spanish colonial power, the emergence of the democratic-bourgeois (neo-colonial) republic and, later, the Cuban revolutionary and socialist process, the sad reality is that these traditions of African origin continue being a part of the most subordinate, excluded and discriminated sector of our society and culture. The transcultural processes have not been as deep and comprehensive as many had assumed. Is it possible to compensate for this imbalance or deficiency once and for all? By this time, shouldn’t all Cubans know much more about these traditions whose wide range of knowledge and artistic, poetic and philosophical expressions are still mostly amassed and safeguarded in religious institutions? Many people in our country do not know the meaning of words like opon Ifa, irofa, irukere, osorde, ebbó, addimú, sarayeye, oparaldo, or what their functions and goals are, although such ceremonies are performed daily in our own neighbourhoods or close to our homes. Most people do not know how to say dog, dove, hen or rooster in the Yoruba language spoken daily in Cuba, although they know those terms in English or in other European languages. Shouldn’t these cultural elements have a larger presence in the curricula of our education system, in our television programs, publications and conferences, preferably guided by the true intellectuals of those religious-cultural groupings and not by means of elaborations or translations made by ethnologists and other specialists, often personally disconnected from these cultural practices? It is true that many elements have already become a part of the Cuban culture, but many others resist becoming fully integrated. They preserve their confidential, secret condition, maybe as a defensive strategy, or because they have functions linked to the sacred, representing different forms of understanding and struggling against the problems of the universe and society, perhaps necessitating continued recognition of their autonomous, independent and sovereign character.

 

The truth is that even within the religious system that some call Ifá-Orisa, there are hierarchical levels that cause knowledge to be distributed irregularly among the worshipers of Santería on one side and of Regla de Ifá on the other, namely, between santeros and babalawos, although both are part of the same religion of the orishas. This irregular distribution prevents the former from having access to a wide array of knowledge and secrets kept by the latter. Even among the babalawos, not all end up having access to or understanding all the details of this deeply complex system. As the odu of Ifá Ogbe Di confirms, "wisdom is distributed". How can we pretend that the general art public has true access to the knowledge expressed in the works of Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal when such a small portion of the distributed wisdom has been received?

 

Although it is difficult to say this, a part of the artistic mystery surrounding Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal´s works, and also those of Manuel Mendive, José Bedia and Belkis Ayón - just to mention the most outstanding who represent the four main traditions of Ifá, Santería, Palo Monte and Abakuá - has its origin in our ignorance, our  lack of information, or in the superficial, folkloric character that we have sometimes given them. However, the other part of this mystery is the fruit of creativity, originality and the artistic imagination developed by these important artists. Should we resign ourselves to having access only to the formal, stylistic and aesthetic, without trying to dwell deeper?

 

Santiago Rodriguez Olazábal's work provides a powerful intellectual incentive to approach the complexities and the beauty of the Yoruba culture. This is a philosophy and a system of knowledge that has been preserved in the 256 odus (sacred signs) of Ifa that the Cuban babalawos learn and use daily, although, as we have said, a variety of barriers hinders the full enjoyment of the complex knowledge that this priest-artist manages with so much ease in his works.

 

But we can look at this from another perspective. Perhaps, instead of considering Santiago Rodriguez Olazabal’s art as contemporaryCuban (or Afro-Cuban), derived from traditions of African origin, what he has been doing is simply a new art of Ifá. The artist has deftly appropriated the languages and methodologies of the traditional western culture to transmit his messages, to express a millennial wisdom. And although it is very different from the art of ritual spaces, this new expression of the art of Ifá has similar symbolic, allegorical, metaphoric, aesthetic and even learning functions, on the different aspects of life. While this new stage of the art of Ifá may be oriented towards the members of this religious-cultural community that we can no longer understand in the narrow context of one national culture, we need not feel disadvantaged. Isn’t the western contemporary art that is exhibited nowadays in galleries and museums something complex, full of mysteries and secrets, inscrutable and incomprehensible for the majority of the public?



 

[i] On this polemic process of “re-Africanization”, refer to the article by Professor Lázara Menéndez, “Un cake para Obatalá”, Revista Temas, 1995.

 

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