I have been making beadwork for the orishas in the Afro-Cuban Lucumí religious context since 1997. I wrote about my experiences as a mixed-race anthropologist, initiated orisha priest, and my beadwork practice in the following article:
Tsang, Martin. “Jubilant Coral and Jade: How Afro-Cuban Beaded Art Reflects Religion, Heritage, and Anthropology.” Chiricú Journal: Latina/o Literatures, Arts, and Cultures 2, no. 1 (2017): 143–63. https://doi.org/10.2979/chiricu.2.1.11.
Beads in the Lucumí religion are worn by initiates as well as used to decorate and adorn orisha shrines. All beadwork is created in ritual ways that honor color and number combinations which honor the particular orisha or deity it was made to represent. The beadwork is then ritually consecrated to imbue and empower it with the spiritual energy of the orishas called ashé. Once consecrated, beadwork is cared for and treated with respect.
For the Yorùbá speaking people of present-day Nigeria, the Lucumí of Cuba, and practitioners of Candomblé in Brazil as well as for orisha priests in many other locations, beaded objects are signifiers of the orisha who unite the religious practitioners across time and space. These beaded objects can take many forms, covering regalia, crowns, scepters, vessels, and more. One of the most personal and universal forms of beadwork are necklaces worn around the neck and wrists of worshippers creating a tangible, bodily connection to the divine. These ritually prepared necklaces are called collares [Spanish] or eleké / ileke by Lucumí orisha practitioners in Cuba, guias [Portuguese] and elekê by Candomblé participants in Brazil.
Further, wearing an orisha necklace “is a representative role, and at the same time a motive for pride, and when worn in public can be a strategic tool in resistance to religious intolerance. Ana Stela Cunha notes that “locating the orixá through beads means dressing and re-dressing in an unspeakable and unique spirituality” (2014, 18). In recent years there have been mounting tensions between fervent religious groups, particularly in the persecution of Candomblé practitioners. These encounters, the majority being verbal assaults, have in some instances, lead to the wanton desecration of sacred Candomblé spaces and the breaking of sacred beadwork under duress. The response by the orixá communities in Brazil in light of these unlawful breaches in religious open-mindedness has led to the intentionally increased visibility of Candomblé worshipers identified by the strategic wearing of orixá beaded regalia. In so doing, practitioners are empowered and educate through public profile of their beads and dress as emblems of unity, pride, integrity and peaceful visibility for greater religious tolerance and understanding.
In Cuba and its diaspora, some Lucumí adherents can be identified by the wearing of a beaded necklace or bracelet, a discreet and coded visual signifier to those who can “read” the beads and understand which orisha(s) the person is being protected by. In such a socialist country as Cuba which has historically not welcomed any religious activity or organizations since the 1959 Revolution, beads help to gently identify practitioners to one another. Once one’s eyes becomes attuned to seeing such beads, it is quite startling to see just how many people in public are sporting them!
In addition to making beads for religious use, I have also mounted exhibitions (see Curating page), I collaborated on a major exhibition of Lucumí beadwork in 2012 at Florida International University and convened an opening panel discussion of experts on Afro-Atlantic and native American bead cultures.
My beadwork has also been displayed in several exhibitions. These include a mazo (large multi-stranded beaded necklace) for Oshanla in the ¡Cuba! traveling exhibition that began at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, (Nov 2016 — Aug 2017) and traveled onward to Colorado and other museums around the US.
A mazo for Oshún was displayed in an exhibition curated by Professor Joseph Murphy at Georgetown University.
Oshún mazo on display in the exhibition, Sacred Arts of Orisha Traditions Georgetown University Library Special Collections Gallery, Washington DC. July 5 – September 30, 2017.
These magnificent necklaces are worn by new devotees during their initiation. This one marks the wearer as a devotee of Oshún Ololodi, the diviner Oshún. When not worn the mazo necklaces decorate home altars.
Sacred Arts of Orisha Traditions features objects collected over nearly forty years by Joseph M. Murphy, the Paul and Chandler Tagliabue Distinguished Professor of Interfaith Studies and Dialogue. For devotees of Orisha religions, these items represent and invoke sacred powers as emblems of particular Orishas. They illustrate the religious pluralism which is a distinctive and creative feature of many Orisha religions. The creativity revealed by these objects reflects the diversity of the Catholic experience and its embrace of dialogue among religious traditions.
In 2017 I designed and staged a spiritual room with a Spiritist bóveda and altar for Oshun for the immersive theatre experience called Miami Motel Stories in Little Havana, Miami October 26 – November 19 at the The Tower Hotel.
My work has also adorned book covers. Most recently, mazos that I made for Olokun and Erinle adorn the cover of Solimar Otero’s Archives of Conjure: Stories of the Dead in Afrolatinx Cultures (2020):
More subtle yet super important beading work that I have accomplished includes making a coral necklace for the statue of the Virgin of Regla housed in the Cabildo Yemayá in Regla, Havana. Each year on September 7th, the statue is processed through the streets of Regla accompanied by Lucumí batá / Aña drums.
Some of my beadwork
Beadwork for Erinle