In the cultural milieu of 1950s and ‘60s Spanish Harlem, Carmen Oramas Caballery was celebrated as one of its most influential Afro-Caribbean religious leaders. Attendees of her spiritual performances recall sensational experiences, detailing the poignantly overwhelming auditory and visual elements she incorporated into these nonspecific religious ceremonies. Even into the early twenty-first century, just before Carmen's illness forced her to retire, she employed a set of well-established syncretic devices to stimulate her heterogeneous viewership. Kristine Juncker, who was present at one of her final performances, details how drummers accompanied the mellifluous tones of Carmen's singing while droplets of water rained down on a dancing audience of both adults and children. She notes that the performance was “not likely to be forgotten by those who were present” (p. 128).
Carmen's elaborate presentation welding the visual and participatory situates the sensational sublime that Afro-Cuban, and more broadly Afro-Caribbean, religious practices invoke to appeal to multifaceted communities. Carmen is but one of four women that Juncker chronicles in Afro-Cuban Religious Arts to convey the cultural inheritance of these hybrid practices over generations of allied religious leaders. With the narratives of these women—Tiburcia Sotolongo y Ugarte, Hortensia Ferrer, Illuminada Sierra Ortiz, and Carmen Oramas Caballery—Juncker cogently demonstrates that Espiritismo and La Regla de Ocha visual practices were passed down, shaped, and preserved for future religious progenitors during the twentieth century, both in Cuba and trans-nationally. Amidst these observations arrive explanations of how religious art practice is gendered, the role of space in ceremonies, the durability of religious arts, and how themes of transculturation and creolization better suit the diverse publics these women serve. Altogether, Juncker's six chapters and appendix provide a unique glimpse into these issues.
In her introduction, Juncker sets the stage for her argument that Caribbean religious art practices, chiefly Espiritismo, are variable and creative to attract a diversifying and burgeoning clientele. Ultimately, these characteristics made “the twentieth-century international explosion of Afro-Cuban ritual arts possible” (p. 11). To establish a new paradigm and abjure prior claims that these practices originated under Allan Kardec in mid-nineteenth-century France, Juncker instead points to similarities shared with West African belief systems. Juncker claims that Kardec's movement exerted only minimal influence on Espiritismo since his model espouses little interaction with the visual arts. Espiritismo, however, draws heavily on visual arts, much like Santería, though it differs in its wider accessibility.
Juncker also uses the introduction to strategically interweave her argument with thematic issues that are marginalized in the contemporary literature on Afro-Caribbean religious art and practice. Gender is a pervasive topic in Juncker's discussions and, in her selection of four women as the subjects of her book, she eschews previous notions of male leadership. Rather, women became the pivotal members of these practices because they experienced a lesser degree of police attention than male religious leaders in early twentieth-century Cuba. Thus, Espiritismo, Santería, and Palo practices transitioned to the purview of women, transforming religious art making into a female role, an intriguing observation that Juncker investigates throughout the later narratives. A primary issue that Juncker also situates, and is highly effective in summoning, is the process of transculturation and its functionality in these hybrid belief systems.
To preface the discussion of her subjects, Juncker initiates a conversation in chapter 1 about the historiography of the field and how her work contributes and challenges antiquated notions of Afro-Cuban religious art making. Beginning with Fernando Ortiz and his early 1900s publication Los Negros Brujos, she traces the literature back to his early lambast of the “criminality” and “primitivism” of spiritual practices. Yet Ortiz and the Cuban government saw the inclusion of Christian motifs and imagery on spiritual altars as a “positive dilution,” leaving Christianity to eventually purify the belief systems. Juncker elucidates how this aloof stance ironically preserved the Espiritismo movement.
After divulging the stakes of her work, Juncker introduces her readership to Tiburcia. Chapter 2 traces the trajectory of Tiburcia's relationship with Espiritismo and La Regla de Ocha through the creation of “nested spaces” in her Stove Street house. In response to an increase of religious persecution during the twentieth century, Tiburcia converted her private home into a ritual space. Juncker posits that Tiburcia's use of nested, secluded spaces helped to resolve anxieties potential clients had when practicing individual faiths. Constructed altars, diverse iconographies, and the inclusion of a doll to serve as a spirit conduit presented various options for worship, setting a precedent to follow for future religious art makers in Tiburcia's line.
Although the Tiburcia narrative is quite engaging, certain elements leave room for expansion. With observations on the orientation of altars within the domestic space, Juncker references several idiosyncrasies without greater detail. These include the ability to view altars from the street, the ephemerality of temporary space, and dual functions of altar spaces. Further commentary on the functioning and gendering of these spaces would deepen the author's remarks on space as a way for Tiburcia to maintain control over the dissimilitude amongst her audience members.
In chapter 3, Juncker relates how Hortensia Ferrer, Tiburcia's adopted daughter, produced a photographic archive to record the altar-making process initiated under Tiburcia. This photographic archive served as a visual history of religious practice within the house, accessible to visitors. Simultaneously, her visual documentation generated a tangible canon of Afro-Caribbean religious artwork. During her life, Hortensia inspired another woman, Illuminada, who became one of her successors. Illuminada and other leaders trained by Hortensia constantly interacted with her altar photographs and, as a result, naturally appropriated photomaking into their own practices. By making this connection, Juncker strengthens her claim that Afro-Cuban art practice is fluid and inherited.
Switching to the international expansion of Afro-Caribbean religious arts, Juncker details Illuminada's migration to New York City, where she met Carmen Oramas Caballery in Spanish Harlem. Chapter 4 addresses their collaboration and focuses on how the two leaders transformed fragments of past ritual art practices to reconfigure historical materials, providing emotional relief for marginalized Afro-Caribbean women. A core group of women associated with the Centro la Fe de Samaritana identified themselves as godsisters, creating a nonsanguine family tree. Through this assertion, Juncker implicitly states the progression of Afro-Caribbean religious art practices further into the international sphere, well after Carmen.
Juncker concludes Afro-Cuban Religious Arts by relating Afro-Atlantic arts to the “popular sublime,” a term she borrows from Rita Felski. Juncker claims that the term sublime emerges when art calls on a collection of disparate imagery or devices in the quest for recovery from traumatic events; it is not to be confused with the art historical term emphasizing awe and wonder. Ostensibly, the reader can see its relevance to the Afro-Caribbean art practices as a bastion from persecution, marginalization, and discrimination based on gender and race. Though intriguing, an earlier threading of this term would fortify its use, as well as synthesize the preceding case studies. Nevertheless, many of her examples in the conclusion aptly cite imagery from Afro-Cuban religious arts to corroborate the global expansion and re-appropriation of the art practice via the popular sublime.
Through this publication, Juncker reveals a lasting legacy of Afro-Caribbean religious arts beyond the Afro-Atlantic context. Ultimately, her work provides the perfect point of departure for future scholarship in Afro-Caribbean religious art. Her discussion on the nexus of Afro-Caribbean women, the hybridity of their religious art making, and their agency over easing religious tensions is a testament to the significant contributions Afro-Cuban Religious Arts brings to the field. Through Juncker's documentation and personable presentation, she cleverly nourishes the practices upheld by these four religious leaders, preserving their existence in manuscript form for future successors' healing and reference.