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Calling Out an Appropriator of Culture

This is not "spiritual art" nor is it a "fetish". This is a real Eleggua.

This is not “spiritual art” nor is it a “fetish”. This is a real Eleggua prepared by an Olorisha received in an initiation

Recently, I posted an article calling out various cultural appropriators on their practices. One of the examples given in the article was of “Crowned Elegguas” being sold by PlanetVoodoo.com by Denise Alvarado. After writing a blog article blasting me and claiming that SAFE is nothing more than a spiritual police that’s attempting to silence her voice as an artist, I wrote her a reply on her blog. I am cross-posting it here for you all to read, refuting her claims of copyright infringement, and also explaining that her practices are insensitive and offensive to traditional Santeria Lucumí practitioners.

Response To Denise Alvarado Regarding Her Post at Planetvoodoo.tumblr.com

In response to your emotionally charged article against me I will address each of the points you bring up. I encourge you, and any other reader of your blog, to read the original article which pointed out why your wares you are selling and claiming are just art, are still cultural appropriation and wholy offensive to the traditional orisha community. The original article titled “SAFE Alert – Cultural Appropriation of Lucumí Religion by Non-Initiates” can be found at the URL: http://santeriachurch.org/safe-alert-cultural-appropriation-of-lucumi-religion-by-non-initiates/

First, no one labeled you as a fraud. In fact, your name was not associated with the article until you raised a fuss about the use of a photo from your website (which was used under fair use rights according to copyright law – see below). Once I actually heard from you (instead of second-hand from your friends and your passive-aggressive online posting about me) I removed the image immediately as you requested. Even though I was within my rights to use the image for product reviews and criticism, I opted to take it down and let everyone know who wanted it down and why.

To reiterate, you were not labeled as a fraud, you were accused RIGHTLY of cultural appropriation. If you actually read the article and researched the information contained therein, you would see that you are clearly “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission … includ(ing) unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.” I was referring to your creation of “Eleggua Statues” that wholly appropriate the visual, religious and cultural symbolism of my culture as a Cuban Santero. How do you attain the “permission” to make such objects – through initiation as a priest (Olorisha or Babalawo) in the orisha faith.

You ask what gives me the authority to criticize you and call you out on this. Two things:

1) I belong to the culture, folklore and people from which Eleggua’s worship in the form of a head-like sculpture originates, namely from Cuban Santeria Lucumí. You claim to practice Voodoo/Hoodoo, yet Eleggua is not worshipped in Voodoo nor in Hoodoo. Voodoo works with Legba not Eleggua, and Hoodoo workers are Christians. Legba is not depicted in Voodoo as a clay or cement head, he is more typically depicted as St. Lazarus or in the form of his veve. The construction of an Eleggua that is packed with aches and proper items is not even DONE in Voodoo for which you claim authority.

2) I am an initiated priest in the Santeria Lucumí faith of over 11 years, initiated by a priest who had over 30 years of initiation when he died, and work with Cuban priests who have been raised in the religion since birth. I – by initiation – have authority to speak on these matters. I actually have received Eleggua, gone through kariocha, received igbodú, washed, birthed, and given Eleggua in my life. You do not have that authority. It’s like asking how a Catholic priest has the right to call someone out on things written in the bible… by definition they do. It is their area of expertise.

Next you bring up the idea that you are creating sacred art. You claim they are only fetishes. Let’s start with definitions. Mirriam Webster’s dictionary defines a fetish as “an object (as a small stone carving of an animal) believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner”. You attribute magical powers to your objects. They are not just art. Your product descriptions for said “Crowned Elleguas” states: “Handcrafted from a unique blend of clay and traditional herbs, Ellegua can remove obstacles, improve communication, provide spiritual protection and bring luck and good fortune.” You are making spiritual claims of power for these objects, calling them Ellegua, saying they can remove obstacles, improve communication, provide spiritual protection, etc. You are not presenting this as art, you are ascribing them identity and magical powers. Your own product descriptions are misleading at best.

Regarding your claims of copyright infringement by utilizing a thumbnail of your product. I am well within the Fair Use of copyrighted materials according to copyright law. Section 107 of the Copyright Act states:

“the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.”

I was utilizing your image for the purpose of “criticism and comment” as well as “teaching and scholarship” to educate the public about what is traditional Santeria Lucumí and what is Culturally Appropriated.

Your legal claims of libel hold no ground either as I have not called you a fraud, I have called you a cultural appropriator, and anyone who crafts “artwork” or “spirtual fetishes” as you call them that draw upon the culture of Brazilian Kimbanda/Umbanda and Cuban Lucumí when they have no initiations in said traditions and does not come from those places, is still appropriating cultural elements – in this case, religious symbolism which is a very delicate topic.

Not all cultures are the same when it comes to someone outside of their culture making artwork for members of their culture. For example, the Catholic Church has hired Jewish goldsmiths to craft their religious objects and they didn’t really have a problem that the artisans weren’t part of their culture. The same goes with Jewish houses of worship employing non-Jewish experts to craft sculptures or art for their holy places. But not all cultures are amenable to this practice. In particular, African traditional religions including Lucumí, Ifá, Palo Mayombe, Vodou, Candomblé, and Kimbanda just to name a few, are not ok with non-initiated people making objects that emulate their religious or spiritual items. Making objects that draw upon these cultures’ symbols and divinities is insulting to them especially when they had ancestors who died trying to preserve traditional practice through generations. As a culture bearer of two of these religions (Palo and Lucumí) I can certainly tell you that this is highly offensive to those that died preserving our cultural practices. You wouldn’t even know what an Elegguá head looked like had slaves not given their lives to worship in the face of oppressive colonialism.

Here’s another good example. As you well know, there are laws in place throughout our country that require you to identify Native-looking artwork as clearly “not made by Native Americans” before they are sold. The state of New Mexico even requires Native artisans and jewelry crafters to stamp their artwork as a sign of authenticity because cultural appropriators came in and started making cheap squash blossom necklaces and fake turquoise jewelry in China then swamping the US markets with these items putting them out of business. You should be particularly sensitive to this as someone who has Native American ancestry, no? How would you feel if someone started making peace pipes and claiming they had the right to create them because “their spirits moved them to do it”? It’s cultural appropriation and it is damaging to minority cultures as my article clearly explained.

Now another point you bring up is about why I didn’t contact you personally about this. Frankly it’s because others have brought this up with you before and you didn’t make any changes to your practices. You feel entitled to do this. You claim it is your right as an artist. Indeed this is America and you can do whatever you want, but when someone comes along and calls you out on exactly what you’re doing, you can’t get upset at the end of the day. I’ll also point out that you didn’t contact me personally but instead went through friends and professional associates who were uninvolved in the issue when there was a clearly marked “Contact Us” page on both my church website and my professional conjure site – neither of which you used until my associates pointed them out to you, and only then after you blasted me in a passive-aggressive manner on your blog.

My church’s action committee, SAFE, is an educational foundation whose purpose is to educate the public about non-traditional and illegitimate practices. We educate the public, and since the article has gone up I’ve received dozens of emails and messages, as well as in-person thanks from people all congratulating me on finally taking a stand and calling people out on their cultural appropriation. Members of Haitian Vodou, Santeria Lucumi, Brazilian Kimbanda, Palo Mayombe, Traditonal Ifá, Brazilian Umbanda, and practitioners of Hoodoo all have come forward and lauded the article. Only two people have scoffed at it; you being one of them. You call my organization a “spiritual police” and in a sense you are correct. It’s about time that we police our own or point out those who are acting outside of what is spiritually traditional.

You have also attempted to sully the name of the association to which I personally belong: The Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers (AIRR), by throwing their code of conduct in my face and accusing me of breaking their rules regarding copyright infringement. I have already refuted your claim as baseless and cited law to back my stance. As a long-term member of AIRR I have always conducted myself according to the code of conduct and I hold that up as a bastion of ethics and transparency in my work. Where is your code of conduct? I can’t seem to find it on your website, perhaps you could point it out for me?

You have the right to spiritually express yourself through art, but if someone is offended by it they will speak out. Freedom of your speech doesn’t mean requirement of my silence in return. My church and it’s SAFE committee also have the right to express ourselves against your “artwork” as non-traditional and examples of cultural appropriation. What’s good for Mama D. is also good for Dr. E.

Finally, I will not only post this in reply on your Tumblr blog and hope you’ll keep it up as a testament to freedom of speech, but I will also copy it on my Santeria Church of the Orishas website and if needed I’ll also include it on my Google+ feed. This dialogue is important as cultural appropriation is damaging to minority cultures. I hope you’ll reconsider the way in which you present these objects on your site and perhaps learn a valuable lesson through this interaction.

17 comments

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  1. Steven Bragg

    Very good response. Thank you.

  2. michelle

    Thank you for a very educational response. I learned a lot. Its probably fair to say a lot of people got schooled :)

  3. Dominic

    Its important to call out the Frauds and those who think its okay to appropriate our culture, gods and religious practices. this sort of thing happens far too often.

  4. Tattoooedhoodoobear

    Denise was rightfully called out on this one. The creating of and marketing of those “Eleggua” heads is no different than a hoodoo practitioner performing Haitian voodoo initations or selling products that are only to be made by a legitimate Haitian voodoo priest/ess. Is she even a legitimate voodoo priestess and who initiated her? There are so many misguided people out there mixing traditions that should never be mixed. And they call it ‘just following the inspiration of the spirits’. Spirits have nothing to do with this, so don’t use them as an excuse.

    I would have so much more respect for Denise if she would put on her big girl panties and take down those fake Eleggua heads. The fact that she STILL has them for sale on her site, even with that lame disclaimer, makes her look even more shady. Denise, do the right thing! Have some respect for yourself and stick to YOUR spiritual path. African tribal religions are not mix and match.

    Shit may have been stirred but she brought it on herself.

  5. Teyama

    Talk about appropriation of culture ? Have you seen the new movie just released called the ” the last exorcism 2″. It utterly disgusts me in so many ways. The use of Veve and Firmas by these people that know nothing of it. Im tired of people extorting our culture to further their wealth. They are miserable and unoriginal individuals. They have no education of the symbols they are using and I find it extremely offensive and pure mockery. Veve’s are NOT drawn with Chalk, nor are they placed on a wall to “summon a demon”. If a minority race was to take such imagery or likeness of a majority religion they would be ridiculed to the teeth. What gives people the right to think they are dominate and superior to others? Its a disgusting way of thinking and honestly I believe its the reason why we haven’t progressed as much as a species, it sort of makes me feel like being blessed by our Supreme being with a higher intelligence was a waste of time and effort especially since most of the time we seem to not use it.

  6. Kalunga

    Thank you. Right on the money.

  7. Cathleen Bailey

    Shared on facebook. Necessary. Thank you.

  8. Warren

    All I can say is, Denise if you want to make art – draw a picture. Don’t make an Eleggua and call it art when it’s not. I’ve seen many people make images of Eleggua and other orishas and sell it as a source of inspiration to others, both in and out of the religion. As an artist I am offended by your claim.

    1. Moon

      Absolutely agree with you Warren! As an artist who draws inspiration from the Orishas and a collector of Orisha art, I find her claims that this is “just art” totally insulting! An artist can depict different aspects of an Orisha’s energy or characteristics and celebrate the beauty and power of a tradition (like the artist Carybe, who did amazing paintings and sculptures of the Orixas and the Candomble tradition), but you don’t go around claiming the work you sell has special powers! And then on top of all that to be uninformed and mixing different traditions together is just sickening. Hopefully she figures it out one day, because Eleggua’s energy is not to be played around with!!

  9. Brenda

    I applaud you and this article on bringing this to light as well as any others. More often than not I’m seeing this garbage going on and it’s not only insulting to different cultures but also dangerous in some cases. Keep up the awareness!

  10. willie

    You Killed it….Im sure she put her Tongue up her own ASS!!! You sound like a DOCTOR OR A LAWYER!!! She felt SALTY! hjajajaja U MURKED HER ASS!! PLAIN AND SIMPLE…>SHE DON”T WANT NONE! TRUST ME! WE BACK U UP 100%

  11. CL

    Hi, I really love the work you do, and i am so excited that there is a group actively fighting against cultural appropriation of our traditions. I recently stumbled upon this group ( http://www.ifafoundation.org/about-us/ ) that is close to where i live (i live in miami and they live in ocala) and apparently have changed all the traditions of santeria/lukumi/ifa and traditional yoruban practices. The allow women and gay men to be Ifa Priests (i am a gay man and find this crazy) and do not require blood sacrifice. On top of that they are two white people who claim that santeros have been racist to them? EXCUSE ME? HELL NO

  12. Mba

    The irony of you writing an article on appropriating culture. smh

    1. Santeria Church

      Perhaps you could elaborate what you consider to be ironic?

  13. anonymous

    I just don’t see why people think they can go a bless and consecrate something to an Orisa when they are not even initiated into an Orisa worshipping tradition.

  14. John

    Dr. E,

    I appreciate your work, vigilance and patient, critical responses to these kinds of behavior. I am an anthropologist and aborisha. I study cultural exchange in the ancient world and the spread of Mesoamerican religions so I am very well-versed around issues of cultural exchange, sharing, respect and appropriation. You are absolutely right to point out just how damaging, harmful and problematic that cultural appropriation IS for subjugated peoples – especially those who continue to suffer from Euro-American settler colonialism.

    The key thing about being inspired from other cultures is that it has to happen in a respectful, empowering and mutually approved way. As Moon points out, we can all be inspired by Orisha. Indeed, I’ve heard many Awos say that Ifa is for everyone and so are all of the orishas and the wisdom and ache they have for us. But inspiration, art and worship should be done in a way that is respectful, thoughtful and doesn’t hurt or disempower the culture from which one is borrowing. By selling these “Elleguas,” this woman is misleading people who might find good iles (houses), and folks like her also take money and authority away from elders who, like you, have earned their authority in their spiritual traditions. This has REAL financial, emotional, and social impacts on the santeria community. It misrepresents us, it detracts from our elders, it stops the proper exchange between seekers and priests and prevents learning, and cross-cultural education to happen because these folks are not experts who can reveal the depth and beauty of our faith.

    I support you, I commend you and I hope SAFE continues to educate broadly around how to respectfully honor, explore and be inspired by Orisha in a proper context. Thank you!
    J

  15. Obayoko Kabiosile

    A great and factual response.this type of madness occurs often in the state of georgia as well,and it must stop.thank you for addressing this issue,by letting all the (fakes) know that we will not tolerate their negative actions regarding our religion

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