Afro-Panamanian Altar Exhibit at Hammond's House Museum:
photo by Kali-Ahset Amen
Guest curator, Kali-Ashet Amen, talks about altars, culture, and spirituality.
On what a home altar means to a family:
“An altar is...an intentional act of keeping the past present in the everyday life of the family... An altar is a living space... You have to nurture it and feed it. For an altar to do the work that it is designed to do – and by the work I mean for it to be a vehicle of communication, really, across worlds – you’re trying to harness positive energies that you might send to your relatives and that you also wish that they might transmit to you, through the altar, as a vessel... so you have to tend to it, like a garden. You keep fresh water on it...because...if we assume water to be a means of communication across worlds, you want clean water, you want clear water, you don’t want the messages to be muddy and murky... Flowers must be fresh and alive. You don’t want dead things on your altar because then you’ve only created an altar to death.”
On the different styles of altars:
“Altars are constructed differently, not only with spiritual intent in mind, but because they are coming out of particular cultural origins and they reflect the intermingling of different cultural encounters... Each altar is an expression of individual creativity as well... Altars carry aesthetics that are embedded in [ both macro- and micro-] culture: the way it looks, the fabric that you put on it, the way that you approach it, the ritual that you bring to it.”
On her approach to the exhibit:
“On the one hand, I was so compelled by the aesthetic beauty and the spiritual and cultural power of these altars and I really wanted to create this exhibit to present them to a wider public who otherwise wouldn’t... not only not know about these altar making traditions often because altars are such...symbols of one’s private world...and sometimes there can be stigma around them and I wanted to challenge that.”
“I also set about the creation of the exhibit as an interrogation into what is Afro-Latin culture and identity. So, really, I use altar-making practices as a means of exploring questions about black identity...”
On the role of alternative religion:
“It’s in the spaces of alternative religion that some surprising and needed and useful cross-cultural and international connections are happening. We tend to think of the so-called dominant religions as the most cross-cutting because they have the most practitioners but there’s a missed narrative there, which is what a globalizing force alternative religions are and actually have been because they’re actually more primordial and even older than these other ones we’re talking about... [This is]...partly because of their marginality, which necessitates recognition that, ‘hey we’re in this together. We’re keeping this tradition alive and expanding and re-defining it because we have to.’”
On the importance of remembering these traditions in our modern world:
“In general, I think it’s important to celebrate religious practices and relate them to specific cultural roots. One, because of this amorphous phenomenon we know as globalization. And we know a lot of cultural death is happening in the name of cultural freedom or freedom of choice. So a lot of these practices are being lost... In that way, it’s about the survival of a legacy...in a very tangible and physical way, these things are necessary for our survival because in the end we can talk about our need for food and shelter and all of that stuff but our need for spiritual rootedness is just as important if not the most to our collective survival. And when we devolve into violence and chaos along these social cleavages of race or class or difference..., I think that is a reflection of our having lost a sense of spiritual centering.”
“In a climate now where we are told through the mass media to be afraid of immigrants – and there are a lot of black immigrants.... In a climate we are told that we need to be afraid of African people because they carry ebola and you will die if you touch them, which has all sorts of hints of things we’ve seen in the past...In this environment of mass fear and stigmatization of...the colored “other”...it’s important... to remember not to get swept up in these other narratives...
to remember the connection...”
...to remember the oneness we all share.
Christina James, Assistant Publisher of Aquarius Media Network, is a closet culture-vulture and appreciator of all things interesting.