Revisiting James C. Lewis’ Portrayal of Yoruba Deities
James C. Lewis is a Black American photographer from South Georgia whose work in portraying Yoruba deities or orishas is lending resurgence to interest in African folklore, culture and identity on a global scale. His work is borne out of a need to connect with the largely undocumented African past and bridge the apparent disconnect of Africans in the diaspora with their illustrious origins.
He admits that his work is based on shaping new perceptions of black people, correcting social injustice(s) whilst providing great visual entertainment. Lewis has worked on many projects, which include his depiction of ‘Orishas, African Kings’ series and the extremely controversial ‘Naked Black’ series that has particularly strong undertones of identity politics.
The 20 Yoruba orishas portrayed by James C. Lewis were released to so much praise and a warm reception by the public that there is already talk of spinning the project into animations, comics, movies and a full-length TV series. While all this is incredible and somewhat unbelievable, there’s something still amiss in all of this – precision.
Lewis’ work is accomplished, no doubt, from an artistic standpoint, and he gets much of his orisha imagery right. There are some though, which perhaps due to sparse material or poor access to sources that he doesn’t quite get right. This is not an attempt to belittle his work or fuss over inconsequential details, rather it is the contrary. This article is meant to embellish it. If we must tell our stories then we must tell them as accurately as we can.
Let’s take a look at a few of the deities.
This Yoruba deity is most commonly but erroneously regarded as the Biblical Satan or Shaytan in Islamic literature. However, Esu is actually closer in similarity to the European gods Hermes and Mercury who are messengers to the other gods in the Greek and Roman mythologies. He is the god of crossroads or orita in Yoruba mythology. Lewis’ depiction of Esu is blameless in my opinion. The wings to a casual observer may perhaps represent his erroneous ‘fallen angel’ status but to me they represent his divine messenger role – the same way some depictions show Mercury with wings. However, it is hard to understand why he carries fire in his hands here, perhaps a reference to hades?
Esu is regarded to be a rock-dwelling deity hence the phrase “Esu laalu ogiri oko. Onile orita”, which translates in English as Esu, wall of stone, which covers cities and resides at crossroads.
However, Lewis describes Esu as a trickster amongst other things. That Esu, who is said to be an administrator of justice is also regarded as a trickster by his devotees or merely ‘shrewd’ to use a less sensitive adjective, is something I’m yet to discover.
With Oya, Lewis does beautifully. From his description of the orisha to her colours and the strong features of the selected model, Oya shone through. The deity, who is also an animagus in some iterations is the goddess of storms at this juncture it is easy to make a mental connection to Marvel’s Ororo Munroe a.k.a Storm – the wind and moon. She’s also regarded as the goddess of sudden change and is strongly linked to the rivers Niger and Amazon in Nigeria and Brazil respectively. In my opinion, Lewis is accurate.
Think Aquaman. Think Poseidon. For me, Lewis’ version of Olokun isn’t just riveting, it is a masterpiece. This is not to say it cannot be improved upon by Lewis himself or anyone with an interest in the visual arts. Olokun as depicted by Lewis is visually pleasing, magnetic and soothing to the senses. It is easy not only to accept his version but to also believe it. The blue in the imagery is easily identified with the ocean where Olokun makes his abode and rules over. The tattoos on the model rather than draw up conflict, phase nicely into the concept of a water deity. Here, the magical elements are also applied in appropriate measure to set off a minimalist but effective illusion.
Perhaps one of the most misrepresented deities, Osun, is to Yorubas what Venus and Aphrodite are to the Romans and the Greeks respectively. The sacred grove in Osogbo dedicated to Osun the goddess of beauty, love and the River Osun in Nigeria, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and worthy of visiting in one’s lifetime. I found Lewis’ version too simplistic and lacking the depth of beauty deserving of Osun .Elsewhere, every other element is fine.
This deity needs no introduction as he is a household name even among non-Yorubas. It was difficult for me to reconcile the Sango I had read so much about with Lewis’ portrayal. For one, I thought the colour of his garments was off as he is notable for donning red. Together with the head gear, the choice of an androgynous look also had me nonplussed. In addition, there was no double-edged battle axe, a totem Sango is well-known to carry with him. In all, with the abundance of material on Sango, I found James C. Lewis’ depiction of the deity greatly underwhelming.
That said, what are your thoughts on Lewis’ depictions of these deities?
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