A Practice Centered Around Making

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Fetish woman, Accra. (= a priestess of the traditional religions),  Accra, 1890s. The National Archives UK [OGL (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/)]

Fetish woman, Accra. (= a priestess of the traditional religions), Accra, 1890s. The National Archives UK [OGL (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/)]

I would imagine, that when one thinks about an independent scholar of contemporary art, writer, and curator, you’re unlikely to think she is also a healer. The converse may be true. Fact is, I am both, however, why and how is the lynchpin to understanding my practice.

I see art and healing as the flip sides of the same coin. Both are practices that center making. It is the exertion of energy into the making of a thing, that can then be used and experienced by the intended parties in a way that is, or at least should be, additive and generative. As a healer I create holistic, integrated solutions for my clients that observe and engage with them in their entirety (spiritually, physically, and mentally/emotionally) in their contemporary state. I achieve this through intense divination, and often the creation of objects with various life spans that I work according to the pacts and agreements of my particular branch and community of Palo Mayombe.

On the art side, I unify and leverage my writing and research skills to create texts that contextualize contemporary artists within and betwixt the canons or cultural movements they occupy (or are confronting). These texts put artists in conversation with their contemporaries and their forebears. In this way, they are visible not just in a temporary exhibition but in the historical record that is documenting the art and related ideas of our time. When making an exhibition, I seek a balance of aesthetic prowess and intellectual rigor that highlights, the artist’s meaning and the over all intended narrative. One of my goals is always accessibility. Non-negotiable is an installation that allows the work to reveal the breadth of its beauty and meaning.

Personally, I believe art can be healing for the mind, body, and soul. Here, I speak of art in the writ large sense: visual, theater, music, dance, literary. I am driven to work with and for artists because I believe in it as a strategy for resolving some of humanity’s most common issues. Conversely, spirituality (not religion, to be clear) particularly when understood as technology, should include art as one its myriad strategies for reestablishing harmony and pursuing liberation. There are myriad examples of arts with healing capabilities. Fundamentally, we must choose that, which is medicine for our body, minds, and soul.

In 2019, I am asking myself - and maybe you too - some fundamental questions where art and healing are concerned:

  • Does it bring joy and succor?

  • Is it additive and/or generative?

  • Does it center freedom and autonomy of my body, as well as the mind and spirit?

  • Does it help me support myself and my community?

  • Does it offer a vision for a world where I can see people like myself living in peace and able to support ourselves without inordinate struggle?

  • Food or medicine? And if it’s food, is it nourishing or simply filler?

  • Do we know how to work the things we have to achieve the ends that we want?

  • What sacrifice am I/are we willing to make and am I/are we willing to deal with the related consequences of said sacrifice?

Happy holidays, however you choose to celebrate. Wishing you the 2019 you are willing to work for. We’re on winter break, but back on the blog Thursday, January 10, 2019.

Until then.

Negarra A. Kudumu

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Modern Medicine Versus Non-Western Traditional Healing


The historical record tells us that pre-contact with Europeans, African traditional healers did treat both natural illness and social illness through a combination of modalities, herbalism being one of them. There were healers with specialities then just as there are medical doctors with specialties now. I believe that Palo and other African and African-rooted spiritual traditions are capable of and possess the technology to treat disease - be it natural or social - in the 21st century. 

As I see it, the challenge lies primarily with the treatment of disease borne of natural causes. Because the Western medical field and healthcare industry, particularly their American variants, still, for the most part, discount the value of non-Western healing modalities, healers from non-Western traditions, no matter what system they have trained in, nor for how long, are rendered both unethical, criminal, and in some scenarios, a threat. 

The contemporary, Western medical system, values an allopathic approach, which seeks to suppress symptoms and thus gives primacy to the specific part(s) of the body that is ailing and treats it/those. Healing medicinal traditions such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine consider the body as a system and seek not just to suppress symptoms, but also to reestablish harmony in the body. Unlike conventional Western medicine, these kinds of medicinal traditions also consider spiritual and energetic factors and their impacts on a person's physical health. 

Palo divination speaks of all kinds of illness and is capable of developing strategies for healing. The skill of the diviner is what allows for a precise diagnosis and precise development of a course of treatment. However, let me be clear: an ethical diviner should, and in my opinion, must, always be prepared to recommend their client seek medical attention from a skilled and licensed medical practitioner. Unless said diviner is also a licensed MD (medical doctor) or ND (naturopathic doctor), he or she can not legally treat any illness.  

The client, too, must know what they want. Many clients turn to divination and herbalists (who may or may not be Medical Doctors or Naturopathic Doctors) because they have seen no improvement through their conventional medical treatment and/or because they are sick of being treated like a car part, so to speak. Palo, in particular, treats humans like complex systems that must be working in good concert in order for a person to be considered well. That means ALL the aspects of the mind, ALL the aspects of the body, and ALL the aspects of the spirit, must be working in equitably in the service of the person's well-being. When one aspect starts to fail, it will affect all the others. A spiritual issue may manifest as a psychopathy, physical illnesses can cause anxiety and depression, unresolved generational trauma could manifest as congestive heart failure.

In Palo Mayombe, the process through which illness, regardless of its origin, is ascertained is executed via divination and generally involves 1. investigation, 2. development of a course of action 3. effectuation of remedy. The course of treatment, differs from person to person. Like medical doctors, we confer with our colleagues - and in our case, our elders - for advice. Like medical doctors we maintain our clients' privacy with the utmost confidentiality. Unlike medical doctors, our course of treatment always includes a spiritual component, evident in the process we undertake to execute a remedy.

As priest-practitioners of a tradition developed in a time foreign to the present one, we must be true to the dictums of our tradition while not traversing  ethical and legal boundaries.

A very special thank to the ladies of the Women Only Orisha Group on Facebook, particularly Iya Eñi Achó, who spurred a lively discussion in response to last week's article, of which this post is derivative. 

Negarra A. Kudumu

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What Is Divination (Part IV Of IV)


The fourth and final part of this series focuses on the divination systems of the Lukumi and Palo Mayombe spiritual traditions. I have, for the sake of length, eschewed historical surveys of these two traditions. I have also excluded the Yoruba Isese tradition. For consistency's sake, I have used words and phraseology loyal to these two traditions' Afro-Cuban origins. While I speak simultaneously about these two traditions, they are nowhere near as culturally similar as many erroneously believe despite their co-existence in Cuba since at least the 19th century.

A brief introduction
In contrast to the methodologies assessed in the previous posts in this series, the divination systems pertaining to the Lukumi and Palo Mayombe spiritual traditions are accompanied by a very rigid set of rules about who can use them, for what purpose, and how. These divination systems are used, primarily, by initiated, trained priests to communicate with the divinities of these two traditions: called oricha in Lukumi and mpungo in Palo Mayombe. While oricha and mpungo are not the only entities that speak in divination sessions, these entities speak solely through the divination systems of their respective traditions. To be blunt, if you are not receiving a divination from a competent priest in one of these traditions who is using the implements and knowledge system specific to that tradition, you are not in conversation with the oricha or the mpungoOricha and mpungo do not speak through the tarot. Mpungo do not speak in odu Ifa and oricha do not speak via chamalongo or nkobo

Divination in Lukumi and Palo Mayombe
There is one Lukumi divination method employed by the initiated and the uninitiated alike: obi (4 pieces of coconut) Let me say, however, that the use of this system by the uninitiated is still debatable depending on the lineage and Iyalosha/Babalosha (initiated female and male priests, also Godmother/Godfather) of the ile (spiritual house) of which one is a member. In lineages and iles where the uninitiated are allowed to use obi, they may do so with the permission of and under the tutelage of the their godparent.

The three other divination modalities in the Lukumi system are the dillogún, the manipulation of 16 cowry shells - primarily the cowry shells belonging to the oricha Elleguá (Elegba) - used by experienced Iyaloshas and Babaloshas some of whom hold the title of Oba Oriaté (Master of Ceremonies); the opele, comprised of 8 half nuts of the opele tree fastened to a metal chain; and 16 ikin (palm fronds). The latter two systems and their aforementioned implements are used exclusively by the all male priesthood of the oricha Orula (Orunmila) also referred to as Babalawos (Fathers of the secrets). 

In Palo Mayombe, there are at least three, perhaps even four or more, depending on your rama (branch; Mayombe, Brillumba, or Kimbisa) divination methods: one employs the use of 4 or 7 chamalongos (disks made from coconut husk)another employs up to 21 nkobos (tiger cowry shells)yet another uses the mpaka (a scrying device), and yet another is possession of the Tata Nkisi Malongo or Yaya Nkisi Malongo by his or her mpungo or ndundun. In Palo Mayombe, all diviners must be, at least, initiated and trained by their Tata or Yaya in order to divine. Other rules may also apply depending on the ngao (lineage) and munanso (spiritual house).

I will not go into detail about ritual implement consecration per tradition. However, all of the aforementioned implements used to divine in Lukumi and Palo Mayombe must be ritually consecrated by competent priests in accordance with the relevant rules of each tradition. I assert that if the tools used in a divination have not been ritually consecrated, that divination is not accessing the source of information that pertains to the spiritual tradition.

What is the source of information accessed in these divination sessions?
The perspectives on this question number as many as the practitioners of these traditions. Where Palo is concerned, my responses are based on my lived experience as a Yayi Nkisi Malongo and the teachings of my Tikan Tikan (the priestess who initiated me) and my ngao Brama con Brama. In a Palo Mayombe divination session, the priest is in conversation with the myriad ngolo (forces) present in the universe and their interactions with the querent and his/her ngolo. These forces reveal themselves with each cast of the priest's consecrated implements and allow the priest to diagnose and recognize a diversity of conditions past, present, and future.

Within the Lukumi tradition, I am an aborisa, which means I am a member of an ile, under the guidance and tutelage of an Iyalosha. My response is based on my lived experience as an aborisa who divines with obi; an individual who has been on the receiving end of many dillogún divinations and divinations with Babalawos performed, fortunately, by skilled diviners; and as someone who has been consistently engaged in an academic study of this tradition for 15 years. All of the Lukumi divination systems point to the odu Ifacorpus, which is the body of knowledge that describes the totality of the Lukumi worldview and offers succinct advice to practitioners that, when followed, places individuals in alignment with their destiny.

I say “point to” as there are divergent opinions on whether obi, and even dillogún, access odu Ifa. I am of the opinion that dillogún accesses odu Ifá through the lens of the oricha Elleguá; however, I am far from an authority on Lukumi divination. The one thing all agree on is that divination conducted by a Babalawo directly accesses odu Ifa.

Why divine and how to prepare?
One chooses to divine for any number of reasons. One may be a practitioner and is looking for advice and insight on a specific issue. One may be looking to connect to an African spiritual system and wants to learn if one of these systems is right for them. One may be a priest/priestess and divines for clients and/or their godchildren. When I was first starting out with Lukumi, I came to it in a time of great distress looking for succor and support. I found it, it made sense, and I moved on to eventually become a member of an ile. Similarly, with Palo, I was experiencing uncertainty and distress, that, it turned out, Palo was uniquely capable of identifying and handling.

While every divination is an experience unto itself, there are some basics worth knowing. Check out these nine guidelines.

  1. Why are you seeking divination? Be honest with yourself. Even if you won't be honest, the diviner, if he or she is worth his/her salt, will reveal the truth. Your life will be laid bare before you.

  2. If the divination says you have work to do, are you ready to do it? Ideally, any work to be done should be done shortly after the reading, without delay. If you aren't ready to do the work, do you really need to have the info?

  3. Get clear on price ahead of time. Divining is work. You need to be prepared to pay a fair rate.

  4. Write out your questions beforehand so you can bring them up during the session. If something the diviner says is unclear ask him/her to explain in detail.

  5. Take notes! Readings are often chock full of information much of which can be overwhelming. In the moment you may be so jolted that you don't remember all that was told. A summary that you can refer back to is very useful.

  6. The diviner is not your crutch, even if he/she is your godparent! The diviner is the vessel through which the forces of the universe communicate to you. He/she is not at your beck and call now that you're interested in fixing your raggedy mess of a life after being read for filth. He/she is a mentor and an advocate. The onus for doing the personal and spiritual work is on you.

  7. Be careful running around from diviner to diviner. The cadre of reputable diviners in the Lukumi and Palo Mayombe communities in the United States is, dare I say it, minuscule, and we are two degrees of separation from each other. Running around from diviner to diviner asking the same questions because you didn't like what the first diviner said is a sure way to earn yourself the brand of persona non grata.

  8. You have agency in the divination process. No matter what is told to you, you can choose how to handle it. It is always advisable, however, to do so respectfully.

  9. If after a reading you decide, or are told, you want/need to pursue a path in this spiritual tradition, find out the protocol for doing so. Minimally, consider the potential impact this will have on your life and the adjustments and commitments you will need to make. Some of this info can be gleaned from a priest/priestess. Other of it is only learned along the way.

Thank you for joining me on this journey through divination. Let’s keep the conversation going! 

Negarra A. Kudumu

Did you enjoy this post? Share it with your friends and networks by clicking on any of the social media icons below. Interested in my practice? Visit the work and offerings sections in the left hand navigation menu above to learn more and schedule your appointment. Until next time!