Learn About Hoodoo, Santeria Through KIA Exhibit Talk

Sep 8, 2016

Renee Stout, See-Line Woman, 2009
Credit Renee Stout and Hand Print Workshop International, Alexandria, VA

If you’ve been to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts this summer, you might have seen the exhibit by Washington D.C. artist Renee Stout called Tales of the Conjure Woman. It’s like stepping into the home of a Hoodoo fortune teller. There are altars with bottles upon bottles of herbs and potions, next to journal entries on how to ensnare a love interest.

But what is Hoodoo exactly? Western Michigan University cultural anthropologist Kristina Wirtz will talk about Hoodoo and Santeria in the context the exhibit September 29th at 6:30 p.m. . 

Wirtz has studied Hoodoo in Cuba since 1998. Hoodoo describes a host of folk magic practices that channel the spirits for healing purposes.

“So the healing could be personal problems, financial problems, trouble with employment - in the same mix with stomach problems or something awful like cancer," says Wirtz.

"It’s all part of the same system in which the ills of the body and of the person - romantic troubles, whatever it might be - require spiritual intervention.”

Most of Wirtz’s work revolves around Santeria. At its base, Santeria combines folk magic practices with the worship of West African deities. But today it’s much more complicated than that. Wirtz says because Santeria isn’t practiced in a church and there’s no one sacred text - no one really has a say in how the religion is “done.”

As a result, Wirtz says you see a melting pot of different religions. In Cuba, for example, native traditions merge with those of African descendants and the Spanish conquistadors.

“In the Caribbean as in a lot of parts of the world there’s an openness to different religious influences. So this idea that you can add on to what you’re already doing as opposed to choosing to having to exclusively choose one track. So Santeria is a good example of that because it involves folk Catholicism - people’s devotion to the saints,” says Wirtz.

Wirtz says in Santeria, people worship spirits of all kinds - African deities, Catholic saints, ancestors, guardian spirits. Things like animals, plants, and rocks all are seen to have spiritual energy.

In artist Renee Stout’s exhibit Tales of the Conjure Woman, one common theme you’ll see is herbs. Wirtz says herbs are essential in all Santeria rituals and ceremonies.

Wirtz says you might be surprised to learn that Santeria - and Hoodoo more generally - are practiced in the United States.

“People tend to be kind of quiet if they are practitioners because there’s a lot of stigma attached to something that I think very easily non-practitioners can see as being superstitious or worse diabolical - especially from the point of view of Christianity. And there’s some of that in Renee Stout’s exhibit as well. She has some pieces that are sort of these very interesting…the Protestant church commenting on these folk practices as not being ok.”

Wirtz says this view has caused some people to separate traditions like folk medicine from the more stigmatized religion. But ironically, Wirtz says it’s not so easy for organized religions to keep out native practices.

“The world religion has been adapted to people’s local circumstances and beliefs and traditions - and I think that’s true anywhere you go," she says.

"So Catholicism in Cuba, Catholicism in Mexico, Catholicism in Ireland you can find these - often in the corners, maybe not front and center - these ways in which it has taken local forms."

The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts exhibit Renee Stout: Tales of the Conjure Woman runs through October 23rd.