When the mother of fashion photographers Elliot and Erick Jiménez left them at age 12, they found stability and hope through an Afro-Cuban faith called Lucumí, a form of Santeria. The 32-year-olds hope to shine a light on the often stigmatized practice through their first solo exhibition at Spinello Projects.
“Between Two Worlds,” which opened on April 16 and runs through June 30, guides you through the twin brothers’ interpretation of the religion mix of Roman Catholicism and Yoruba culture, one of the groups largest ethnic Nigerians in West Africa.
“When the Spanish colonized Cuba, they enslaved the Yoruba and forced them to convert from their original Isese faith to Catholicism,” explains Erick to New Times. “In order for them to continue their practice, they hid their gods, deities based on Catholic saints with similar ideals, which is pretty much what the show envisions.”
The series ventures out of the twins’ 14-year career in fashion photography. (They have worked for Fashion, SeduceHermés and Highsnobiety, to name a few). Although his career took off in New York City, Miami natives brought “Between Two Worlds” home.
Each editorial-style photograph honors the saints of Lucumí through elegant and grandiose garments worn by ambiguous generations of Caribbean, Latin American, and African models, including one person with a surprisingly close bond with the Yoruba.
“It was very interesting to work with one of these guys because he’s basically from Nigeria, where the Yoruba come from, but he had no idea or understanding of their religion,” explains Elliot. “Of course you think about the whole picture, but especially about the people we are photographing, for spiritual reasons.”
However, this knowledge gap between the native Yoruba and Lucumí beliefs is not uncommon. Elliot emphasizes the impact colonization had on those now living in the United States.
“Here in Miami, there is such a dense population of Cubans that most people have some idea of this religion, even if they are not directly connected to it,” says Elliot. “I know that people already come with so many assumptions or ideas about religion.”
At first glance, the photos surprise the viewer with their bold auras and color themes based on the energies of common Yoruban orishas, or spiritual deities of the natural world.
“Each saint is connected to a color. Since mine is Oshun, which is represented by yellow, then you could give them offerings like yellow flowers,” says Elliot. “It is believed that each orisha chooses someone when he is born to become a kind of guardian for life.”
But as you enter each room, you’ll notice dark, eerie tones within the photographs, epitomizing the mystery behind Lucumí.
“They have temperaments, personalities, flaws,” says Erick. “If you meet the orisha and understand who they were when they were human, they have certain traits representative of who you are.”
Erick was inspired by his own orisha, who is often depicted with abundance and water, both flowing and constant.
“People already come with so many assumptions or ideas about religion.”
“For my orisha Yemayá, you can go to the sea to pray or hug her,” explains Erick. “Some others are connected to palm trees so you can meditate under the trees.”
These rituals of meditation and prayer are often practiced in private since the Spanish conquistadors initially banned them. But Elliot and Erick hope their show can allay suspicion and distrust of religion, which has surrounded faith with a negative stigma.
“The Spanish found it comical that the Yoruba worshiped the saints with much more passion than God, as in Catholicism,” says Elliot. “They think something bad is going to happen to you like voodoo or black magic is going to happen to you, but I think we’re trying to show that Lucumí can honestly be a positive thing.”
By third grade, the brothers knew that their involvement in both fashion and Santeria would set them apart, but not always in a good way.
While most students perfected their multiplication tables, Erick and Elliot were able to read their friends’ entire star charts based on the exact time and coordinates of their birth, a skill that could take even a mathematician years to acquire.
“We were going into third grade with an astrology book like freaks, and people were like, ‘What are these people doing?’ How we used to do the math to find people’s rising signs and get an idea of who they are. It’s really based on the time, latitude and longitude of where and when you were born,” says Elliot. “That determines where the planets were aligned or placed, and then it’s distributed on the chart.”
Growing up, his mother encouraged similar astrology rituals. Still, they attribute much of her spiritual upbringing to her Afro-Cuban ancestry. GrandmaNorma Salgado, now 83, who practiced Lucumí and took care of the twins when their mother left.
“We didn’t have the easiest childhood, so when you’re in a situation like that, you turn to faith to have something to believe in,” says Elliot. “Our mom considered herself an atheist, but we had to go out on certain full moons to collect energy and even go out when certain comets passed.”
This powerful energy literally shines brightly through the glowing eyes of each model. Using a manual photographic technique inspired by Cuban artist Belki Ayón, Elliot and Erick took and superimposed several images to create deep contrasts in the exhibition.
One of the 14 pieces in the exhibition, entitled Twin (meaning “divine twins” in Yoruba), adopts this technique as the brothers wear powerful black suits matched with delicate white neck guards. This gender-ambiguous outfit highlights a spectrum of energies and strengths unique to the Lucumí saints throughout the show.
“The stories and the practices will vary depending on the person practicing them,” says Erick. “So the techniques and emotion put into this is our visual interpretation of the religion, but of course we invite everyone to come and understand it in their own way, and maybe even want to learn more.”
“Between two worlds.” On view through Thursday, June 30, at Spinello Projects, 2930 NW Seventh Ave., Miami; spinelloprojects.com. Admission is free.