The Cuban Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal is a truly exceptional artist in today’s art landscape—and that goes not only for Latin America. Although respected, international criticism has perhaps not always taken him quite seriously enough, as his work deals with his own autochthonous religion, the Santería. What would we say in Europe if an artist appeared on the scene today to present us Christian iconography?
Priest and artist of Santería
Santería derives from the correspondences between the former West African Yoruba deities, called orishas, and the santos (saints) of Roman Catholic piety. It is based on the personal relationship between its practitioners and the orisha deities, through divination, sacrifice, initiation and mediumship, in order to achieve protection, wisdom, success and guidance.
There are only very few artists who ventured to approach this specific religious iconography, among them the Brazilian artist and photographer Mario Cravo Neto (1947–2009), who appropriated the imagery of the Brazilian Candomblé, a religion similar to the Santería (see post no. 42 of December 21, 2019). In Cuba, the early-deceased Belkis Ayon (1967–1999) worked with Santería imagery (see post no. 30 of June 22, 2019); as well the Cuban artists Marta María Pérez Bravo (born in1959), José Bedia (born 1959) and Manuel Mendive (born in 1944) are committed to this spiritual iconography.
Whereas the artistic manifestations of the more prevalent religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism are more or less familiar to us and have sustainably informed their specific cultural landscapes over the past centuries, this is by no means true of Santería—not least because it always remains shrouded in mystery and because only few people have access to its core and are privy, that is to say initiated, to the particular religious rites. One of them is Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal, who is a babalawo («Father of the Mysteries») and not only practices his religion on a daily basis as a Yoruba priest, but also persistently continues to fathom out its religious depths and backgrounds.
Enigmatic echo chambers
Santiago Rodríguez Olazabal’s art is certainly diametrically opposed to any type of cool, relatively comprehensible conceptualism. This may be one of the reasons why many of my fellow curators did not really dare to go public with his artworks. When it comes down to it, his drawings, paintings, and installations are less readily explained than other artifacts.
«They are not part of sacred art, but they act as echo chambers that repeat and retransmit religious messages, although with the inevitable subjective distortions derived from the art styles and fashions of the time and the creative originality of each artist.… His works are truly hieroglyphic, dark, dense, synthetic discourses that speak and remain silent at the same time.» (Orlando Hernández in Cuba: Ficción y fantasía, Casa Daros, Rio de Janeiro, 2015, pp.103, 111).
The works by Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal are thus not immediately accessible in the sense of a 1 to 1 translatability. But upon intensive observation, they do gradually open up to us by virtue of the intrinsic archetypal spirituality inherent to these initially puzzling and apparently numinous symbols and poetic images.