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Obatala



2003
Acrylic on Canvas
24" x 36"
Collection of Alex Ulanov

Obatala, or "King of the White Cloth" in the Yoruba language, is the orisha of creativity, wisdom and purity. Though often represented as an elder, my rendition appears somewhat youthful and strong, yet wise. The person who commissioned the work requested that both the Yoruba and Catholic representations reflected in the Obatala of Santeria be included in the image. Since I felt a stronger calling towards the depiction of a Yoruba King, I decided that this image should be dominant in the composition. The figure holds a traditional staff and although his crown conveys a European influence it is adorned with 8 cowrie shells (Obatala's number) and has the dangling beads typical of Oba (Yoruba King) crowns. In the background, somewhat obscured, is the image of la Virgen de las Mercedes or our Lady of Mercy with who Obatala is associated in Santeria. For centuries the image of the father orisha has been hidden behind that of the Virgen, so my decision to organize the painting in this way is very symbolic.
The figure of Obatala is seated on the earth alluding to a Yoruba creation story. Olodumare (God) gave Obatala the task of creating mankind to live on earth. The earth at the time was a sphere of water. Obatala descended from heaven on a chain with dirt and a five-toe hen. He created a mound of dirt on the earth which the hen then scattered to form land. Obatala later sculpted men and women to inhabit the new lands. For this reason he represents creativity.
Obatala is generally associated with light, making the dark background of this piece a little ironic. Originally the painting had a bright, light blue sky which obviously grew darker over time. Not only is it indicative of a difficult period in which I painted the piece, it also seemed to represent changes in the collector's life which I learned of after the piece was completed. It also serves to bring more dramatic attention to the King's immaculate white clothing, a symbol of his tranquil nature. The crescent at the feet of Obatala is taken from the Virgin's image.

   

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