Oba Ikuro - Santiago Rodriguez Olazábal

Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff - August 29 to October 16, 1994

exhibition text by Tim Westbury

Santiago Rodriguez Olazábal's powerful drawings, paintings and mixed media installations are developed on a firm foundation of western art history and the academy, however, they draw their inspiration almost entirely from the AfroCuban religious philosophy of santeria.

The religion of santeria, also referred to as the Rule of Osha, has African roots in the Yoruban culture from the southwest region of what is now Nigeria. It crossed over the Atlantic to Cuba, the island at the forefront of "the new world," with the millions of people who were first taken there during the slave trade. There, as throughout the rest of the Caribbean, a complex and thorough cultural assimilation gradually occurred. Since the nineteenth century, Yoruban religious beliefs have been fully integrated into Cuban cultural life - consequently artists of different and mixed ethnic backgrounds have felt free to incorporate forms and philosophies from the spiritual universe of West Africa into their work.

Santeria is an extremely pantheistic religion with a vast number of deities or orishas. There are sixteen major orishas and for each there are appropriate songs, dances, rhythms, taboos, sacrificial foods and insignia through which they are fed. Adherents are explicit that it is never these material symbols that are being worshipped during the rituals but, rather, the deities that they represent.

Olazábal himself is a devoted initiate of the rites of santeria and characterizes himself as a son of Oshun, the orisha of love, the goddess of freshwater, succulent fruit and honey, and son of the magician and god of metals Oggun. As the artist explains, "Since a very young age, I have witnessed, during the ceremonies, the terrible presence of Iku (death) and of Eggun (the dead one). In this world, totally closed to the profane, death frees itself and acts; that is the primal force of our ancestors."

Through his faithful interpretations of this religion, born of the Yoruban belief system, Olazábal demonstrates both the contemporary creative spirit and the existential anguish of life in his country today. In choosing to reinvent rather than simply reproduce the mythic models, he also succeeds in uniting some of the thoughts behind contemporary artmaking with an underground and ancient worldview. The purpose of his artistic practice is marked by a very direct and conscious relationship with his personal spiritual beliefs - and the work itself is a manifestation of his faith. According to Olazábal, "Obo Lowo Olorun" (I leave everything in the hands of God). 

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