To an outside observer, ceremonial rituals may seem inherently theatrical. Connecting with realms and beings beyond our solid three dimensions requires specific visual, verbal, and spatial cues—a set of colors, an incantation, a site, a time of day. By activating these elements, we attempt to touch the untouchable.
When artists fold spiritual practices into their artwork, many withhold explanation—those familiar with the context will understand the symbols, while others will still be privileged to enter what has become a blessed space, even if they’re not aware of its implications. In the four works that follow, artists with strong cultural links to the Caribbean incorporate imagery and ideologies related to various African or Afro-Caribbean spiritual traditions, particularly the ancestor reverence of Yoruba, into their practices. In different ways, the artists render the usual divide between art and ritual traversable, though always sacred.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons, When We Gather (2020–22)
The concept for When We Gather—a multipart project including a 3-minute film from 2020 and a performance this year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.—came to María Magdalena Campos-Pons in a dream. Just after the 2020 election, she envisioned a circle of women surrounding the White House while performing a cleansing dance, as if to heal the nation. She conceived the film with artist and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili as well as poet and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs. For the performance, Campos-Pons and six women in white gowns and blouses circled a statue in the museum’s large hall, wielding white flags that they waved in spiraling gestures that resembled the act of sweeping with a broom. The movements seemed inspired by both spiritual cleansing rituals and the cleaning of domestic space, two processes often intertwined. In a video documenting the performance, Campos-Pons declares, “This country needs a cleansing. Politics needs a cleansing!” Alongside musicians and singers, the women in the piece sought to purge the dark forces at work in Washington, a city so fraught with a history of patriarchy, slavery, and war. The processional performers were also spiritual practitioners, reciting the names of their own ancestors to request their assistance in this act.
The number of performers, seven, is significant: one of the rituals that Campos-Pons performed while growing up in Cuba involves tying seven knots in a piece of fabric to help return missing objects—seven unifies, makes things right. Other associations come to mind too: in the Yoruban religion, the orisha (spirit) Yemayá (or Yemanjá) is the ruler of the seven seas; in the Cherokee tradition, there are seven directions; and seven is also a powerful number in both Christianity and Judaism, appearing throughout the Bible and the Torah. The sanctity of the number may not be universal, but its implications are broad.
Kurt Nahar, Wake up and listen (2022)
Inspired by Dadaist techniques like photomontage and assemblage, artist and poet Kurt Nahar takes as his primary subject the social and spiritual history of Suriname. His 2022 installation Wake up and listen draws attention with a painting featuring text in all-caps that spells out the work’s titlein Arawak: ajupakako epa namako. Below that, a number of offerings in an altar-like arrangement rest on a red cloth on the floor: a bag of rice, a glass of water, and bottles of rum positioned near calabash bowls containing purple hibiscus petals.
Ancestor reverence is a key principle of Winti, an Afro-Surinamese religion whose practices Nahar has referenced in his work before, and the Arawak were among Suriname’s earliest Indigenous inhabitants. With Wake up and listen, Nahar pays homage to the original people of his homeland using a traditional religion based on primarily African beliefs. The offerings in Wake up and listen call to those spiritual and potentially biological ancestors, while the painting echoes the call through its emphatic textual command in their own language, as if they were responding. The altar, though part of the work, transcends it.
Chire “VantaBlack” Regans and Loni Johnson, 3:33 | A Procession (Reprise), 2021
Their Names: A Public Art Memorial Project, a large-scale mural in Miami for which artist Chire “VantaBlack” Regans stenciled the names of more than 250 people lost primarily to gun violence. Though several of the names—such as those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—are widely recognized, many of the victims memorialized on the exterior of the Bakehouse Art Complex were never named in news outlets, and their families are local. This past December, Regans collaborated with artist and activist Loni Johnson to create a public ritual of remembrance for which a crowd met in the garden of the Bakehouse at 3:33pm. Johnson was in the center, dressed in white at what evoked a domestic scene with an altar. Anchored by a soft patterned rug strewn with small items like seashells, cups, and bowls, the arrangement included a rocking chair painted with palm trees and a small cupboard containing family photos. Johnson poured water from a bottle into a glass and lit candles, leading participants to the mural and to Regans’s indoor exhibition of portraits of the deceased as Regans recited their names.Johnson paused to dance, touch the wall, and momentarily collapse. Then, back at the altar, she gave away flowers.
Ancestor altars are an important component of Johnson’s practice. They often contain objects and ephemera from her family, as well as elements that have symbolism in West African Yoruba cosmology, such as beads and cowrie shells. Johnson’s use of altars and conducting of ceremonies is never performative, even when presented at an art space. As spectators become privy to the typically private details and photographs of her altars, Johnson reminds viewers of their ancestors and works with her own to imbue the rituals with gratitude and care. Under the ancestors’ gaze, she transforms the setting for her work into a site of prayer.
Nyugen E. Smith, Spirit Carriers (2016–)
Constructed from found materials and involving communion with the spirit world, Nyugen E. Smith’s sculptural “Spirit Carriers” emblematize the artist’s multidisciplinary practice. Each work in the series is suspended from the ceiling like a mobile; all feature a hoodlike component that hangs above a pouch often connected with string, rope, synthetic hair, or beaded netting. Many of the works appear to contain sculptures within the sculpture. Spirit Carrier No. 7 features a wire ornamented with triangular green and yellow flags, like a celebratory banner, and the wire wraps around strips of felt attached to a wooden vessel. Spirit Carrier No. 12 contains what look like two delicate birds’ nests.
Smith, who grew up in Trinidad and New Jersey (where he is now based), is often traveling or conducting research. In 2016, when he began making “Spirit Carriers,” he was studying Yoruba spiritual practices, which influenced the sculptures’ forms and installation. The cone-shaped top of each “Spirit Carrier” points upward in reference to the beaded crowns and veils of Yoruba chiefs, which “obscure the identity of the chief from the public, as well as protect the public from the power of the chief and protect the chief from any negative energy,” as Smith explained in an audio guide for his 2020 exhibition of these works at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. Because the works are suspended, they resemble blimps or tiny floating boats transporting passengers through the sky rather than the sea. Indeed, their name reveals their purpose: Smith designed them to care for and protect the souls of those killed through racialized police violence as they make their way to the spirit world. These sacred vessels of lace, netting, and other materials shroud the spirits they carry; viewing them, we are also witness—perhaps without realizing it—to an ascension.