It feels like yesterday, or not so long ago, January 2020, that I travelled to Canada for the first time to meet the ArtsEverywhere team in Guelph and be named the first Fay Chiang Artistic Journalism fellow. I remember being overwhelmed–and not just by the cold. It felt like anything was possible: I was about to set course for a year of travels connecting the dots of religious transmission across the Atlantic between Benin, Nigeria and Cuba. I had no idea of the storm that was coming.
C-O-V-I-D. Five letters that slapped the whole world down. Five letters that forced us to confront the extreme elasticity of time. Five letters: S-T-U-C-K. Closed doors and shut borders. We lost a lot: loved ones, jobs, mobility, and a certain sense of security and predictability. To protect our sanity, each of us found shields and shelters. Mine were in books. Reading and writing became my bunker.
Months later, when planes finally started taking off again, the nature of my project had shifted. I had mobilized resources from philosophy, anthropology, history, history of religions, sociology, African mythology, literature and cartography, breaking boundaries between disciplines and interrogating my own position/intention as an interviewer and researcher. In this time of intellectual wandering, ArtsEverywhere supported me and gave me space to move deeper into my academic and artistic practice.
Before long, the words and images floating behind my eyelids became a new body of work. At the crossroad of artistic photography, creative documentary, sound design and literature, The Roads of Yemoja examines how a West African deity (known as Yemaya or Aflekete in Cuba) survived the horrors of slavery and became venerated on both sides of the Atlantic to this day.
Delving into the Yoruba and Ewe-Fon heritage in Cuba, I came across forms of resistance that don’t equate with blood or war, and explored how the word and the worship travel with us and within us no matter what. I collected and assembled new narratives on African and Afro-Cuban spiritualities, that I articulated around the role of women in transmission and the importance of oral archives. My ambition is that this ongoing venture gives a voice to religions that were vilified and silenced for too long, while fueling a conversation on cultural resistance, fragmented collective memory, and creolization.
It feels like yesterday, or not so long ago, that I did not know who Fay Chiang was. And oddly enough, Fay and I met after she passed. It was through people who admired her and were eager to celebrate her life’s work that I got to know her. Since my project revolves around memory and the legacy of ancestors, I guess it all falls into place. I hope she knows how grateful I am. I hope she is proud to walk with me on The Roads of Yemoja.
Selected Images from The Roads of Yemoja
Ouidah, Benin–Dada Daagbo Houna II is the supreme spiritual leader for several deities of the sea in Ouidah, which makes him “King of Seas and the Oceans,” according to the sign hanging next to the entrance to his compound. This highly respected religious leader knows how deities morphed to survived in Cuba, and praises descendants of Africa for preserving them. “They kept the term ‘vodun’ and kept the worship alive in clandestinely. They managed to safeguard that, despite the power of the master.” When Dada Daagbo travelled to Haiti a few years ago, crowds of worshippers gathered to see him from the time of his arrival at the airport. There he invoked the Bois caïman ceremony, the event that launched the Haitian revolution: “Vodun is our identity, our spirituality, our culture. It is meant to help us organize our lives and resist all forms of oppressions.” ©Laeïla Adjovi
Matanzas, Cuba–Drums wait for the return of their tamboleros. In his book titled Dialogos Imaginarios, Cuban author Rogelio Fure writes that “the history of the drum, from the squalor of the slave houses, to the halls of the colonial cabildos, until today, symbolizes the vicissitudes of the descendants of slaves who for centuries have struggled to preserve the remains of their cultural heritage, in spite of the means adopted by the colonial authorities and by the first republican governments to destroy any vestige of the Negro heritage in Cuba.” ©Laeïla Adjovi
Ibadan, Nigeria–Esther Oladele, 10, is initiated to the orisha named Obatala. Obatala is the deity of knowledge and wisdom, dubbed Orisha Nla (great or tall). In one of her many ‘roads’, Yemoja is married to him. The Yoruba and Ewe-Fon believe in reincarnation. Just as humans do, orisha are believed to have lived many lives. Each incarnation is a new life path, a new road, bringing lessons collected in an immense corpus of knowledge called Ifa. ©Laeïla Adjovi
Ibadan, Nigeria–Baale Olukunmi Egbelade, high priest of Yemoja, offers prayers to the river during the Yemoja festival. The event was created over 20 years ago by his father in the Nigerian city of Ibadan. “Yemoja is the mother of all orisha. She is the mother of all.” Yemoja is one the most renown deities in Yoruba spirituality. Baale Olukunmi Egbelade is very critical of Nigerian authorities for not recognizing traditional religions. “They only use us for drumming and entertainment,” he laments. “How many Muslim holidays are there every year? How many Christian holidays? And yet, none for the traditional religion.” ©Laeïla Adjovi
Matanzas, Cuba–What did Africans bring with them as they were forced to cross the sea during the Transatlantic slave trade? Their knowledge. Their culture. The dignity they were denied. The deities they had on their ‘ori’ (head). Street art by Yoelkis Torres Tapanes et David Duanys. ©Laeïla Adjovi
Agramonte, Cuba–In addition to syncretic African rites, Yamilka de la Caridad Cejas Molinet is a spiritist. She summons the dead to communicate with them. “Antes del santo son los muertos,” she claims. (“The dead come before the deities.”) Ancestor worship is an essential part of African and Afro-Caribbean spiritualities. ©Laeïla Adjovi
I fondly call them “Las Madrinas” (the Godmothers). I met Yaniela, Orialis, and Evelyn during my field work in Cuba for “The Roads of Yemoja”. They are all “hijas de la aguas” (daughters of water, initiated to a water deity), and they’re eager to learn more about African spirituality on the continent. They benevolently guided me in the field and greatly encouraged me to pursue my efforts to piece together fragmented collective memory in the African spiritual heritage in Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi
Matanzas, Cuba–This map of pre-colonial West Africa was found in the house of a babalawo (Ifa priest) in the city of Matanzas. Recreating cultural archipelagos and maps retracing communities dispersed and relocated by the slave trade and colonisation seems essential to create counter archives to decolonize history. ©Laeïla Adjovi