In millions of homes throughout the world, there is a niche or a table or a small corner of the room where heaven meets Earth.
Altars mark the boundary between the living and the dead; the convergence of the ordinary and the world of the spirit.
"Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas" is a new exhibition at the University Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive that explores the altar as both a focus of ritual and art.
The exhibit, which opens Sept. 28 and runs through Feb. 19, breaks important ground on many different levels. It is the first exhibition to explore the spiritual and artistic achievement of the altars of traditional African religions.
The 20 altars in the exhibition vividly illustrate the dynamic cultural exchange that has occurred over the last 500 years between the peoples of Africa--particularly the Yoruba of West Africa and the Kongo of Central Africa--and their descendants in Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and the United States.
And the exhibition provides a unique opportunity to bring together faculty, museum personnel, and members of the community--including local priestesses from African-based religion--for the planning of a major UAM/PFA exhibition.
"It truly is an exhibit of the people," said VéVé Clark, associate professor of African American Studies and one of several faculty who served on a community advisory committee formed for the exhibit.
But perhaps most significant is the exhibition's inherent celebration of multiculturalism--a fitting theme for a university whose mission is excellence through diversity.
"(The exhibition) can be placed in the context of multiculturalism because visitors will see the whole cultural nexus underneath it," said Clark. She added that the exhibition will "galvanize the important work in African diaspora."
Blending African, Catholic, and Native American religious influences, the exhibit presents the colorful images of Yoruba worship on both sides of the Atlantic.
"This is a phenomenal opportunity for Latinos and Asian- and African- Americans--for people from many different cultures--because the exhibition will relate to them on a special level," said UAM/PFA Deputy Director Bonnie Pitman.
During the years of the Atlantic slave trade (around 1500 to 1870), millions of Africans who arrived in North and South America maintained elements of their religious traditions while blending into their new surroundings, incorporating Catholic saints and Native American practices into their devotion.
"These works of art demonstrate clearly the fundamental aspects of African art that have been implicit but rarely explored or understood in terms of its lasting impact on the Americas," said Pitman.
"It is the ability of African culture and religion to transform and sustain itself despite all the challenges and then to go on and become a phenomenal intellectual and artistic pursuit--that's the story that's told in 'Face of the Gods.' It challenges previous assumptions of art and religion."
Clark said what intrigued her most about the exhibit is how it explores religions "that are about displacement--something we all share in this hemisphere."
"We're all from someplace else," said Clark. "Accepting displacement for me is the most important point of this exhibit."
Two main themes that run throughout the exhibition are the Yoruba sense of an altar as the "face of the gods," and the Kongo concept of an altar as a "crossroad" between the mortal and spirit worlds.
Flags of meditation for the ancestors and spirits; lavish thrones decorated with satin, beads, flowers, and shells for gods and goddesses; healing charms; and ground paintings are among the altar forms included in the exhibition.
Not only does the exhibition present the diversity of the altars, but also the creative ways these artistic and religious traditions have been transformed in their new environments.
In the Americas, descendants of the Yoruba identified various Catholic saints with Orisha, whose powers and histories are similar. In Cuba, the Yoruba thunder god Shangó is equated with the martyred St. Barbara because her assassins were struck dead by lightning.
One of the exhibition's most compelling altars honors Omolu, a Brazilian form of the traditional Yoruban deity of pestilence and disease, to combat AIDS. Overturned earthenware pots commemorate recent fatalities, scattered popcorn represents Omolu's seeds of pestilence, and wrought-iron staffs invoke the presence of Osanyin, the god of healing.
"In Africa, as in the West," notes exhibition curator Robert Farris Thompson, "altars encompass sacrifice, prayer, and devotion. Anchoring men and women at life's deepest moments...they back up crisis or transition with the immortal presence of the divine."
For Pitman and Clark, an exhibition that provides a place to meditate or seek divine intervention has appeal beyond the artistic and intellectual.
"For everyone," said Pitman, "it underscores the creation of sacred spaces; that place that allows us a moment in time for sacredness to come into our hearts."