The Madama Mystique

Exuding both earthiness and spiritual power, images of Black women in Caribbean art form a powerful exhibit at the Westfield Athenaeum in Massachusetts,  as Laura Holland reports in the Valley Advocate.

Meet the Madama, in her multiple manifestations. “Madamas: Women, Madonnas, and Mothers” looks at images of Black women in Caribbean art, as shown in paintings, batiks, dolls and photographs.

The figure of the Madama, says exhibition curator Waleska Santiago, has diverse meanings in different contexts within the African Diaspora in the Caribbean and Latin America, “ranging from the cultural dignity of a religious shaman to racist stereotypes of domestic mammies.” Recognized by their common characteristics of African ancestry and garb of head ties, long gowns, earrings, necklaces and bracelets, Madamas may express religious power, entrepreneurship or educational leadership within their various communities. The exhibition’s bilingual title helps indicate the mix of cultural traditions in the Caribbean—and also that these traditions share a history of colonialism, slavery and racial discrimination.

Santiago has organized previous exhibitions exploring the living heritage of Caribbean cultures. The “Nuestras Abuelos/Our Grandmothers Project” in 2008, co-curated with Natalia Munoz and Noemi Valentin, documented the legacy of Latina matriarcas, and invited viewers’ stories about their own grandmothers, at venues in Amherst, Holyoke, and Westfield. Another exhibition, at the Westfield Athenaeum in 2010, highlighted Haiti’s cultural heritage and folk art traditions.

Now, combining her passion for all things Caribbean, formal training in art history, and a focus on issues related to women, exploitation, and oppression, Santiago explores the various roles of the Madama in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil and Trinidad.

One key image, with provocative aspects of its own, portrays an iconic Madama with a cigar. The painting comes from Cuba, but Santiago describes it as a multicultural mix in which “everything means something.” The white dress means purity. The red kerchief and colorful beaded jewelry represent different deities relating to West African origins and New World religious practices of Santeria.

The Madama holds up a card from the Spanish game of Brisca, indicating the long shadow of European colonialism. The cigar connects to indigenous Taino and Carib people’s cultivation of tobacco, and the flower in her head tie is traditionally associated with rituals for fertility, love, money and luck. “Cultural blend is what she represents,” says Santiago, noting that centuries of mixing and mingling created the various cultures of the Caribbean.

Given all this cultural intermingling, it is important to consider the context. That cigar, for example, is not a challenge to gender stereotyping, but as tobacco, symbolizes a link in the slave trade between Africa and America. Also, as Santiago says, the cigar is a tribute to the gods and cigar smoke is a ritual offering, suggesting possible kinship with the northern Native American ceremonial peace pipe. Thus the cigar emphasizes the religious role of this particular Madama.

Two small paintings from the state of Bahia in Brazil—”where the roots of African culture are prevalent and active, even to this day,” says Santiago—show white-gowned Madamas (called Baianas in Bahia) offering flowers to the Goddess of the Sea. Santiago explains that bodies of water are very important in Black Diasporic cultures, relating not only to the original African ceremonies but also adapted to New World practice as a tribute to African ancestors who died while crossing the Atlantic Ocean after being sold into slavery. As Santiago explains, “They died due to terrible conditions of the voyage, and were thrown overboard, with no ceremony or burial rituals. This ritual, in the New World, is a way of insisting that the slaves who died in the Middle Passage were human beings, and their souls are still with us, as they are our ancestors.”

Madamas are not only religious leaders, however, but also serve secular, educational and entrepreneurial roles. Several batiks, also from Brazil, show Baianas as independent merchants, wearing long white gowns, headscarves, and jewelry, but also carrying fruit or flowers. Their blank faces connect these figures to a tradition of dolls of the Caribbean, created without facial features but wearing distinctive, detailed costumes. There is, Santiago suggests, a certain power in universality, as the viewers themselves “fill in” the faces.

Some of the dolls selected for the exhibition are unabashed tourist souvenirs: a dancer with maracas, for instance, or a plastic doll with an apron stamped “Puerto Rico.” Others are imbued with spiritual power. One large hand-sewn doll was rescued from a trash bin in Puerto Rico, lovingly reconstructed with re-stitched joints, and then dressed as a Madama in a long white gown with a red sash, symbolic bead and shell necklaces, metal bracelets and red cloth earrings. “This is no plaything,” Santiago points out.

As cultural artifacts, certain dolls—such as those that embody the subservient Black “mammy” role—convey and confront a legacy of colonialism and racism. Santiago expresses some concern that viewers “may look at the dolls and wonder, ‘What are you trying to portray here? Sambo?'”

Her answer is that the dolls reveal the wide variety of meanings associated with the figure of the Madama, reflecting the similarly wide variety of Black women’s experience in the Caribbean. And her hope is that, when seen in this context, the stereotyping can be educational.

“Even with the most stereotyped images, we need to acknowledge what they are, so we can move on,” she says. “You can’t erase history, and you can’t erase stereotypes from the history. So we need to learn from history, to see the diversity of contexts and the diversity of meaning.””

“Madamas: Women, Madonnas, and Mothers,” Jasper Rand Art Museum, Westfield Athenaeum, through August.

For the original report go to

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