Willie Cole


Colors of the Orixás

Willie Cole was born in Somerville, New Jersey, in 1955; he lives in Mine Hill, New Jersey. Cole arrived in Salvador, Brazil, on May 15, 1999, overlapping with Janine Antoni and Tunga. He chose to collaborate with about three hundred children and teenagers from Casa de Cultura, Modaxé, and Opaxé.

Cole has been interested in the persistence of West African culture in the Americas for many years. Since the late 1980s, he has created sculptures and installations in which he explores the formal, personal, and social meanings of ordinary domestic objects—especially abandoned household objects, such as irons, ironing boards, hair dryers, doors, and shoes. By transforming these objects, he reveals how aspects of the historical experience of African Americans continue to resonate in everyday life in the present. One of his most important works is an installation entitled The Elegba Principle (1995), which is dedicated to Elegba, also known as Exu, the Candomblé orixá (deity) who functions as the guardian of doorways, streets, and crossroads. Excited by the fact that the educators of Projeto Axé strongly support the teaching of African cultures, Cole developed a project in which he worked with children ranging in age from about ten to about sixteen from three of Axé's units to create a series of monumental works of art in the form of Candomblé orixá necklaces, traditionally worn by adherents in the color of the orixá being worshipped. The project's purpose was to deepen the children's knowledge of and respect for the African roots of Candomblé.

During the first phase, Cole showed images of his work to the children and discussed it with them. Then he showed them an actual orixá necklace and asked them to guess how many beads it was composed of (over five hundred). He next told the children that each unit was going to make a necklace as large as their classroom, which would then be displayed in the exhibition at the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia. Each unit chose the orixá to whom their necklace would be dedicated: Casa de Cultura made a blue and white necklace for Oxóssi (male orixá associated with the forests and hunting), Modaxé made a gold one for Oxum (female orixá associated with love and beauty), and Opaxé made a multicolored one for Ibeji (child orixás associated with birth, who are the protectors of children).

The children made the necklaces by inflating balloons, covering them with papier mâché, painting the shells, punching holes in the balloons, and then stringing the shells together to form the necklaces. Each child made three to six balloons. At times the process was intensely chaotic, as Cole sought to guide sixty children at a time, the vast majority of whom became gleefully distracted when they discovered the fun of popping the balloons. Although only one of the necklaces was completed by the time he had to return to the United States, the educators of Axé supervised the completion of the others. This project raised many questions from several of the children's parents, who were not necessarily Candomblé adherents, but Catholics or evangelical Protestants, who felt uncomfortable with their children working on a project that was seemingly proselytizing one religion over others. Consequently, Axé asked Alberto Pita, an educator and Candomblé adherent, to speak to all the units about Cole's project in the context of Afro-Brazilian culture. This episode revealed some of the cross-cultural complexities of what it means to be an African-identified black person today.

As a resident of a predominantly white community in a society in which the contributions of African culture to mainstream society are typically undervalued and even ignored, Cole was very moved by the visibility of African culture in Salvador. He was struck by the number of people he saw wearing T-shirts with such slogans as, "I am Proud to Be Negro" (in Portuguese, the word negro does not have a negative connotation, but the same sense as the word black in English) and by the sight of statues of the orixás in the parks. And he remembers being pleasantly shocked by seeing Candomblé ceremonies being practiced in public by large numbers of people, since in the United States, they are almost always held in private for a select few. He was perhaps most moved when he saw the young children of the Canteiro dos Desejos (The Flower Bed of Desires) performing a play about Yemanjá (female orixá associated with the sea), an experience that brought him to tears.