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What is Santeria, its religion, and its influence on his art?

Santeria is a religion that emanated in Cuba among African slaves. The word Santeria is derived from Santos, which means the way of the saints. Some refer to the religion as the order of the Orishas. The Yoruba were forcibly converted to Roman Catholics, which was the predominant religion in Cuba. Since the Yoruba were adamant with their African religion, so they hid their faith from their masters. Over time, they adapted to a white-dominated community. The resulting intermingling and intermarriage produced the third racial group, the mestizos (Jaimes).

During the colonial period, Catholicism was predominant, and the slaves were offered a chance to maintain their motherland culture. It was a blessing in disguise as the means allowed the masters to identify their ways and forcibly convert them easily. Eventually, the deep devotees adopted some of the catholic practices which they used to hide their unorthodox religion. In 1898, slavery was abolished globally. Consequently, Africans became free to practice their religion. However, this came with a lot of intense persecution from the white ruling class. The discrimination made believers more devoted to their practice (Glaude). The white ruling Catholics developed various prejudiced misinformation, namely child sacrifice about the religion with the aim of propagating the notion that the religion and its believers are violent and unruly.

The current Santeria religion is an amalgamation of French spiritualism, Catholicism, and Orisha. Santeria is a very individualistic religion with stringent rules that devoted members follow. Each individual identifies their Orisha via the high priest and develops a means of connecting and worshipping them. Santeríans believe in one supreme God known as Oodumare or Olorun. The religion centers on building a fortified relationship with Orishas, powerful mortal spirits that serve as intermediaries to Olodumare. Believers acknowledge the essence of Orishas as the principle mediators to their way of religion. Orishas are treated as living things and are therefore given nutrition in the shrines. Through proper rituals, the devotees believe that Olodumare can grant them their needs. Ancestors are essential to the practice of Santeria. The ancestors are often called upon together with Orishas during rituals to intercede for the believers (Mason). Shrines are an integral part of the religion widely dispersed in homes. Food and drinks are offered to the Orishas and ancestors who are believed to dwell in the shrines. Caution must be taken to ensure that the food is fresh to avoid the wrath of the Orishas.

Bembes are dance festivals common in Santeria worship. The worship session is conducted by babalawo, an equivalent of a high priest or Santeria elders. Santeríans believe in spiritualism, a norm adopted from the French; hence when a devotee begins to form specific dancing movements and drumming patterns, they are spiritually possessed. Such subjects are considered holy, wise, and honest consequently may approach other devotees to offer spiritual and moral counsel. During the worship or rituals, animal sacrifices are offered to Orisha to intercede for them. Birds are the main offerings. The blood is sprinkled on stones that symbolize the Orisha together with food and drink. All world elements have ashe, which is life energy, which the Orisha feeds on (Mason). The high priest or Babalawo offers great incite through the use of chains and nuts. The Babalawo toss the artifacts and assess the positions that they fall. After the assessment, the Babalawo gives divine interpretations that guide the believers of the sort of prayers or songs that devotees should conduct for specific issues.

How does this particular art tie in, where was he born?

Most Cubans prescribe themselves to Catholicism with patches of Santeria worship, just Fidel Castro and William Lam. William Lam was Sagua la Grande, Cuba. Lam was born to Congolese and Chinese parents. Besides, he was a mixture of Chinese, Europeans, and Indian descent. Lam was raised into the Roman Catholic church and the Santeria religion. The up bring immensely influenced his future artwork. Lam moved to Havana in 1916, where he began his artistic work. In Spain, Lam learned of the European artistic pieces under the mentorship of Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne. In Paris, Picasso introduced him to the artistic work of Cubists. Lam also worked with Andre Breton, a Surrealism activist who influenced his style (Cernuschi).

Lam returned to Cuba in 1941, intending to express her culture through art. The various artists he worked with Europe influenced his art in the 1940s blending cubism, surrealism, and African art into his paintings. Human-animal figures dominated his paintings, something learned from Breton. During an interview on his great masterpiece, Lam stated that he wanted to express his country’s drama via art (Bercht). Lam understood the power of art, which led to the monumental “the jungle” painting. Prepared by his upbringing and mentorship in Europe, expressing his message became easy. Lam practiced Santeria while growing up and knew the trouble his ancestors faced to maintain their African religion. This explains the hidden settings or the term jungle in the painting. At nearly eight feet and seven and a half feet wide, the art feels so immersive. It is composed of a four-part human and part animal figures and African masks. This recollects and shows his African descent.

On the other hand, bodies are fragmented into small parts that do not seem to fit together in Cuban fashion. All the figures mentioned emerging from dense vegetation. The lush vegetation has thick banded stalks illustrating the sugarcane farms where the African slaves worked. The horses in the picture are a reference to the gods that represent a time locus. Although Lam spent most of his adult life in Europe, he never forgot his roots. In fact, “the jungle” is influenced by the religious and artistic nature of the African-Cuban population. Lam himself revealed that his art was majorly broadened by African poetry.

The symbol of the scissors is tied to Santeria and other religions, explain a few of its meanings.

Lam drew several items in the paint, intending to send a particular message to the world. Cubans had been colonized for a very long period. The mestizos and the black community were the most oppressed individuals in Cuba, and Lam, therefore, felt the need to ask for such people’s liberation. Hence, the floating scissors call for a cessation from colonial rule and culture. Lam suggests that the Cuban people are tired of the cultural depression by the dominant white society (Cernuschi). Hence, scissors dignify cutting off. In the Christian religion, when Delilah used the scissors to trim, Samson’s hair was immensely weakened for his strength was in his hair. The Lord left him, and Samson was weakened; hence the use of scissors depicted removing yourself from the Lord.

Compare and contrast Santeria and Catholicism.

The Santeria religion adopted several practices from the Catholics and also the French. The term syncretism is used to explain this phenomenon. The process was not easy and involved both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. The outside factors were the French revolution that popularized the French spiritualism and the colonialists that tried to help the Africans adapt to the new environment by encouraging them to practice their religion. The intrinsic factor was the need for self-preservation. Santeria devotees and Catholics both believe in the existence of one God (Jaimes). Both use intermediaries to intercede for them to the Most High. That is, the Santeria devotees utilize Orishas, who are equivalent to saints.

The Santeria venerate the Orisha gods on specific days, similar to Christian practices. In both religions, there are designated areas of worship. In both, the high priests intervene and lead worship fellowship. Both religions give offerings to the Lord. Both faiths are individualistic in that they believe in personal redemption. Hence provide for means and practices for people to achieve this. However, there significant differences between these religions. First, the Catholics do not believe that the ancestors can intercede for them, unlike in Santeria. The Santeria offer animal sacrifices to the Orisha while the Catholics do not. Santeria is passed down through word of mouth, while Catholics learn of the religion from scriptures and word of mouth. Santeria religion is unwritten, which means that the Babalawo has an enormous task of knowing all the practices, prayers, fables, and songs to guide the devotees (Mason).


Bercht, Fatima, et al. Latin American & Caribbean art: MoMA at El Museo. Ed. Miriam Basilio. El Museo del Barrio, 2004.

Cernuschi, Claude. Race, Anthropology, and Politics in the Work of Wifredo Lam. Routledge, 2019.

Glaude, Ludmille. “Perceptions on Santería: Then and Now.” (2018).

Jaimes, Gabriela Jazmin. “Santería: A Closer Approach to Orisha Worship.” IUURC21. 2015.

Mason, Michael Atwood. Living Santería: Rituals and experiences in an Afro-Cuban religion. Smithsonian Institution, 2016.

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