By Sara Cruz
As I sat in to watch one of the rehearsals of this weekend’s Winter Dance Concert, I took interest in the original work choreographed by Professor Nyama McCarthy-Brown about water conservation and inspired by the Yoruba Culture of West Africa. Each dancer represents an Orisha, which are entities from Yoruba that represent elements of nature. I wondered if people in North America recognize that word like I do. Do you know what an Orisha is?
The Yoruba are a diverse group and are bound to each other by their language, religion, history, and culture. They are one of the largest ethnic groups south of the Sahara. Their traditional art practices include sculpture, mask forms, pottery, weaving, bead-working, and metalsmithing.
Yoruba culture was brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans, and their descendants kept the Yoruba traditions. Even through years of strong repression, their culture ended up having major influence on many other ethnic groups and religions in the Caribbean and South America, including Christianity.
In Brazil, Yoruba originated Candomblé, Ubanda, and Santeria; which are religions that were repressed for many years but eventually became a major source of cultural exchange for the country, even influencing the Catholic faith in Brazil. Having grown up in Brazil, I understood what this dance was trying to communicate. Orishas are spirits that represent nature, they have power over the Animal and Plant kingdoms and all 4 elements: water, air, fire, and earth.
One of the most recognizable Orisha (Orixás in Portuguese) in Brazil is Iemanjá the Goddess of the Sea. Every year the faithful from all religions give offerings to her for protection. In these cultures, every person is assigned one or more orisha as a protector, based on a specific combination of year of birth, month, date, and day of the week.
In researching for the Winter Dance Concert, I found out that this is not the first time that Orishas have visited IU Theatre. A couple years ago IU Theatre presented In the Red and Brown Water by Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by David Koté, whose characters are based on and named for Yoruba Orishas. I recognized some of the Orishas that were represented in the play. Shango (Xangô) spirit of thunder and fire, Ogun spirit of the earth and labor, Shun (Oxun) for rivers, creeks, and waterfalls.
It is amazing to see how how much African culture has influenced the Brazil that we have today. If you want to know more about Yoruba and Orishas or Iorubá and Orixás here are some places you can find more information!
Orixás: The Divine Forces of Nature [Soul Brasil Magazine]
Countries and Their Cultures: Yoruba [everyculture.com]
Art & Life in Africa [University of Iowa]
Sara Cruz is a graduate student in the Arts Administration program in IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. She is a Marketing Assistant for the Theatre this year, and brings great talent and enthusiasm to the job.
Sara is from Brazil and earned a bachelor’s degree in music from East Carolina University in Greenville, NC before coming to IU.