When I first entered Anna’s house1, I was surprised to hear that it was a temple of the Afro-Cuban Santería religion, a place determined by the presence of the orichas – the sacred beings of Santería. The objects of the interior did not reveal but seemed to hide their sacred meaning for the uninitiated viewer.
On our way through the house, Anna introduced me to a doll dressed up in white: Obatalá, the paternal oricha of wisdom and justice, with a cream cake on his right and a wide-eyed Bambi on his left. On the sideboard in the corner we greeted Yemayá, the maternal oricha of the sea, represented by a plastic bowl filled with water in which various floating animals swung and a Barbie, whose light blue lace dress complemented the turquoise colored water of the bowl. Finally, in a small wardrobe, the soup tureen of the goddess Ochún was decorated with two elegant Barbies in golden outfits, staring out of the darkness with their always flawless smiles. Two foreigners, charged with western ideals of beauty, who, in this context, had been commissioned with representing Ochún, the oricha of femininity, love and freshwater.
The representation or illustration of sacred powers through everyday objects, such as toys, dolls and knickknacks, have held a strong fascination for me since I literally stumbled upon them in Santero households, and, thus, the question of how this transference of powers and meanings to ultimately mundane objects could occur has long accompanied me on my fieldwork.
How can we interpret the fact that Ochún, the Afro-Cuban goddess of love and freshwater is visualized by a glittering Barbie doll sent to Cuba by Cuban family members living in the USA.
We should take a look back to the beginnings of the history of this religion for a better understanding of these dolls on the altars of Afro-Cuban Santería. Between the 16th and the 19th century, people were moved from one world to another on the sea routes of the transatlantic slave trade, which connected West Africa with the Caribbean (and this, in turn, with Europe), where they would henceforth work as slaves on the plantations of white landowners.
We should consider that people from Nigeria, Togo and Benin who had been deported to Cuba arrived in the New World without any luggage. The carved wooden sculptures of their gods, power objects, masks or costumes were left behind together with the African coastline. The transfer of religious concepts from Africa to Cuba, the Caribbean or Brazil, therefore, took place primarily in the minds of these people and remained dependent on this imaginative reservoir for long periods of time.
Despite the fact that the Cuban social anthropologist Don Fernando Ortiz2 still managed to collect some old carved wood oricha representations which had been produced during the colonial period in the 1930s to 1950s, the tradition of carving sculptures had not been resumed in the new situation in Cuba. The wooden oricha representations of Nigeria and Benin were replaced by smooth porcelain Madonna statues and the serious looking saints of Spanish folk Catholicism. Slaves from West Africa who were forced to worship the statue of Santa Barbara reacted with a phenomenon known as the syncretism of the Caribbean: statues of the Madonna and saints were interpreted as “reservoirs” of African deities and treated as such.
In the course of these syntheses, Santa Barbara is venerated as a representation of the virile oricha Changó, ruler of fire, thunderstorms and lightning. The Virgin of Regla, with her blue and white Madonna robe, is associated with Yemayá, the maternal oricha of the sea, and the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, in her church near Santiago de Cuba, is worshipped as Ochún, the oricha of love, creativity and sexuality. This possibility of reinterpretation, of “declaring something to be something else,” is tantamount to breaking the link between form and content and is the precondition for the unusual appearance of Barbies on the Santería altars.
As the colonial supplies in holy figurines diminished, colorful multiples of saints from Cuban mass production are found nowadays instead of the statues. Together with plastic dolls, Barbies or everyday objects, these new assemblages bear witness to the change of time and values, of new desires and new myths that move the people of Cuba today and are visualized on the altars.
Despite the fact that the connection of object and meaning has been blown up in modern Santería arrangements, it remains unclear to what extent new narratives are woven into the conception of the orichas when they are represented by new material objects: how much Madonna can one find in Yemayá, the oricha of the sea, and what is the relationship between a Barbie and an oricha? Referring to Marshall McLuhan’s3 famous statement that the medium is a significant part of the message, we can try a more specific interpretation of Barbies on Santería altars.
Original Barbie dolls are commodities acquired in stores in the USA and sent as gifts by relatives. As commodities and gifts, they mirror family ties that have continued over decades connecting Cuba and the USA, countries that have been politically separated since the Cuban revolution in 1959. In addition, Barbie dolls are not only saturated with the sacred aura of the orichas, they are also simultaneously encrusted with a fine texture of Cuban dreams of consumption and the feverish delirium of departure. Like Catholic saints, Barbies are figurines which are highly charged with their own narrative: the story of Ken and Barbie in the US American glamour world is a story of success, power and consumption. In this sense, Barbies on Afro-Cuban altars represent the fusion of idealized body and lifestyle imaginaries with sacred Afro-Cuban entities and deified ancestors. And, in the end, the forces of the orichas are conjured for reaching exactly these reasons: to provide their adepts with power that enables them to achieve their goals and realize their dreams – be they capitalistic or of another sort.
The reclassification of the Barbie doll from toy to altar object does not happen suddenly. The dolls have to undergo a transition process to become part of an altar installation. The dolls that appear on altars have been subjected to a ritual cleansing ceremony using decoctions of herbs associated with a particular oricha, which allows them to bear the vital power “Aché” of the sacred being. A bundle of herbs and other substances have been placed inside their bodies. Throughout these preparations, nothing has changed the appearance of the doll, which preserves its fashionable style and smile. What has changed is the idea about the object and hence its place – the Barbie is now part of a sacred altar installation.
Barbie dolls watch the strollers from the illuminated doorways that line the dark streets of Havana. Powerful representations of forces, imaginations, places and practices, connecting Africa and Cuba as well as Cuba and the USA, blending boundaries between dolls and gods, toys and power objects, commodities and sacred beings. They connect long-separated families and fragmented religious concepts. They guard the entrances of homes and watch over the desires of their inhabitants, who rely on the power of their Barbie goddesses.
1) Natalie Göltenboth. “Yemayá und der Spielzeugdampfer – Zur Sakralität der Ready-mades auf afrokubanischen Altären.” In Ideen über Afroamerikaner – Afroamerikaner und ihre Ideen. Beiträge der Regionalgruppe Afroamerika auf der Tagung der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde in Göttingen 2001, edited by Lioba Rossbach de Olmos & Bettina Schmidt. Marburg: Curupira, 2003, pp. 107-127.
2) Fernando Ortiz. Hampa Afrocubana: Los Negros Brujos. Miami. Universal, 1973.
3) Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Men. 1st Ed. New York: Mc Graw Hill, 1964
- Brown, David H. “Thrones of the Orichas. Afro-Cuban Altars in New Jersey, New York and Havana”, African Arts, Oct. (1993) 44-87.
- Danto, Arthur C. Transfiguration of the Commonplace. A Philosophy of Art. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1981.
- Göltenboth, Natalie.2020. „Invoking the gods – or the apotheosis oft he Barbie doll“ IN: Philipp Schorch, Martin Saxer et al. Exploring Materiality and Connectivity in Anthropology and Beyond. London: UCL
- Göltenboth, Natalie. “Yemayá und der Spielzeugdampfer – Zur Sakralität der Ready-mades auf afrokubanischen Altären.” IN: Ideen über Afroamerikaner – Afroamerikaner und ihre Ideen. Beiträge der Regionalgruppe Afroamerika auf der Tagung der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde in Göttingen 2001, edited by Lioba Rossbach de Olmos and Bettina Schmidt. Marburg: Curupira, 2003, pp. 107-127.
- Holbraad, Martin, and Morten Axel Pedersen. “Things as Concepts.” In The Ontological Turn. An Anthropological Exposition. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2017, pp. 199-238.
- Willie Ramos, Miguel. “Afro-Cuban Orisha Worship.” In Santería Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin Art, edited by Arthuro Lindsay. Washington: Smithsonian Press, 1996, pp. 51-76.