There is a profound fascination with status and finery in the Santería community. This fascination is no accident; it is in essence a syncretism of cultures where the Lukumí evokes notions of royalty inherited from our forefathers in West Africa and merges them with aesthetic sensibilities and materials from Western influences.
In modern Nigeria, initiatory clothes for oloshas are simple by comparison to the Lukumí fashions. The Lukumí ashó orisha are a melting pot of symbols, colors and textures which in the hands of expert seamstresses are transmuted into a costume to complete the spiritual birth of an olosha representing a new king, queen or powerful warrior.
Much can be said about long-gone elders such as Omí Tomí, who is mentioned by Lydia Cabrera in her research as a direct descendant of an enslaved Mina Popó woman of the Gold Coast in Africa. Omí Tomí, an oní Yemayá was considered one of the highest skilled seamstresses in Havana in the late 1800's. It was then when the memories of royal life in Africa and the increased availability of fabrics and ornaments from the New World were fused to embody a baroque like sense of aesthetics and to honor new initiates.
Of course, there have been many others who have contributed to this artful expression, from seamstresses to the throne makers who work together to complete the touch of regal expression for the kariosha process. What is truly important is to realize that what when a seamstress gets to work, her aim should be to narrate the story of the orisha without using words, having her fabrics, colors and textile highlights as a canvas where to create a piece of living art that speaks without uttering a single word, but should elicit many words of praise and admiration for the orisha being honored.
On my Día del Medio (Throne day) I was jubilant in my blue dress. I could not see myself as mirrors are not allowed for iyawós but I felt wonderful in a billowing skirt with two beautiful tones of blue playfully arranged to create an ocean. My ashó orisha, by comparison with the ashó orisha I like to make, was very simple and decorated only with single strands of silver sequins.
Making an ashó orisha for me is more than a mechanical process of gathering fabrics, finding a traditional design and incorporating a few elements of the orisha’s tools and attributes in the attire. Long ago I made myself a promise, if I ever had the opportunity to sew for an orisha; I would never repeat a design and would always strive to make each iyawó look simply spectacular. I have been blessed to be able to work in ashó orishas for Obatalá, Obba, Oshún, Oyá, Babalú Ayé, Yemayá and Oggún. Among those, I have made the ashó for my husband and son’s kariosha and that gave me great satisfaction, and in the case of my son a lot of itch. Yes, working with the course fibers of burlap fabric can leave your skin happily itchy for hours.
Here is what I have learned from my experiences thus far. The process of creation is not entirely mine and neither are the results because I work in collaboration with an Egún who I know used to be an oní Yemayá when she was alive. Her influence is undeniable and it that takes over once I am commissioned for an ashó orisha and basic ideas are discussed with the godparent. It is crucial for me to listen to her advice because she gives me clues as to traits of the orisha that must be reflected in the design, traits which I have found to be later on spoken about during the itá for that iyawó or even during the ebbó de entrada.
Sewing for me is an act of meditation where my mind is fully immersed in the realm of that orisha. I play music to the orisha as I sew or sing along as I work. When I get tired of music, I move on to oriki or prayers to the orisha and for the iyawó and I do my best not to interrupt that state of mind because I do believe that there is a transfusion of energy and ashé into every single stitch, just like there is such sharing of energy in the words that now you read from me.
I leave you with some photos of my work. I am by no means a trained seamstress, just simply someone who likes to pour her love to the orisha onto fabric and to bless each iyawó in my very own particular way. If you want to learn more about the particularities of the designs for the orisha, know that I will elaborate in future articles as the subject is vast and this is but an introductory from my own perspective and experience. Enjoy.
-Omimelli, Oní Yemayá Achagbá