Palo: a liberatory, healing technology (Part I)

Nganga ngombo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pende, 19th century AD, wood, rafia, bast fibers - Ethnological Museum, Berlin

Nganga ngombo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pende, 19th century AD, wood, rafia, bast fibers - Ethnological Museum, Berlin

Nganga, Museo de Guanabacoa, Cuba.

Nganga, Museo de Guanabacoa, Cuba.

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of being featured on A Little Juju Podcast interviewed by Samantha bka Juju Bae titled “Palo, A Liberatory Technology”. This article is the first of a series intended to be a accompaniment to that interview and as you can see from the title, I am going to hone in on the connections between healing and liberation as I understand them through my Palo Mayombe lens.

As a formally trained social scientist, and a Capricorn with HELLA Virgo in her chart, I am going to start with historical context because clarity is important and I do not condone ahistoricity. I am an active proponent of citationality and so I will foreground this text and this series by mentioning the scholars and scholar-practitioners whose research and lived experience inform my thoughts: Teisha Shaw, Ernesto Mercer, Kimbwandènde Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau, Robert Farris Thomas, Stephan Palmie, Quentin Nolet de Brauwere, and Linda Heywood.

For the sake of this discussion, the following terms will be used in the following way.

  • Las Reglas Bantu: Bantu Rites. A term used synonymously with Palo to refer to all branches of the initiatory rites

  • Palo: an umbrella term used to refer generally to all the branches of the initiatory rites also called Las Reglas Bantu, also sometimes referred to as Palo Monte

All other terms will be defined in the text.

Socio-historical Context
Palo or Las Reglas Bantu is spiritual tradition conceived and born on Cuban soil comprised of an amalgam of beliefs contributed by Bantu peoples of various ethnic groups who were enslaved in their African homelands and brought to Cuba. These individuals came from the Kingdom of Ndongo and Matamba (Queen Nzinga’s territories), the Bakongo empire with it’s seat at Sao Salvador in present day northern Angola, the Kingdom of Loango, and various other territories of West and West Central Africa.

These individuals were members of highly organized and cosmopolitan civilizations who were no strangers to war. Queen Nzinga is an excellent example of this. She is notable among all historical leaders of the African continent, particular for the prowess she exhibited at outsmarting the Portuguese where diplomacy and war games were concerned. She employed the Imbangala, who were known for their thoroughly vicious warfare tactics namely cannibalism, against the Portuguese. Due to slavery, the Imbangala were dispersed throughout the Americas to the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Where you find quilombos, you have traces literal and figurative of the Imbangala. I say all this to say, Bantu people knew warfare and militancy before being enslaved and sent across the Atlantic.

Palo’s antecedent cultural contributors were acutely aware of the realities of suffering (mpasi) meaning, they took mpasi as par for the course and understood it as a function of being in the world. They also understood it as a state of being that was aberrant and needed to be resolved. They did so through their spiritual practices, most notably a society called Kimpasi, which consisted of healer specialists that came together for the sole purpose of resolving mpasi.

Palo, as we know it, in its more or less contemporary form, developed in Cuba during the latter part of the 19th century around the time of the Ten Years War, 1868-1878; Cuban abolition of slavery, 1886; the Cuban War for Independence, 1895-1898; and the early part of the 20th century during the time of the Negro Rebellion of 1912. A notable group of Black soldiers referred to as the Mambises fought valiantly and aggressively in these wars and are purported, though this information does not seem to be readily accessible, to have been practitioners of Las Reglas Bantu , but also Bantu spiritualist practices such as Bembe de Sao.

Palo was conceived and birthed in a wholly violent social environment that considered and treated African people as non-human and continued to do so even after slavery ended and Cuba won its independence from Spain. Palo is about liberation through and through. In colonial Cuba it was a tool that Afro-Cubans used to free themselves from physical slavery. In post-colonial Cuba it was used by its adherents to survive in a society that, as exemplified by the Negro Rebellion of 1912, had no regard for Black Cuban life.

It is a tradition of a specific time (the colonial period and slavery era) and place (Cuba) that continues to adapt to the time and place in which it finds it self. Palo emerged as a technology for Black life to persist. It exists still, for that reason: persisting, particularly going beyond simple survival, into thrive mode. In order to thrive, we’ve got to heal and healing can only happen once suffering is unrooted. Palo’s specialty par excellence, in my estimation, is healing. It is a toolkit, a technology, and a multitude of methodologies for healing. It is through healing that liberation becomes visible and thus possible.

I think I shall leave it here for now. The next post is on October 31 and is an art one. I am going to look at some Palo aesthetics but also share with you a few modern and contemporary artists who pushed Palo to the fore through their works.

Negarra A. Kudumu

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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

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!