About the Project: Secrets Under the Skin

In many cases, artistic ideas are informed by traditions that have been passed hand to hand over centuries. Artists are the guardians of these traditions because they hold them in their hands and bodies, practice them, and keep them alive.

Ceremony in Agramonte, Brandon McElroy Photography

Secrets Under the Skin is a collaborative project that delineates the provenance of ideas, gestures and cultural forms as they have transmigrated across geography and time. It shows how artists interpret cultural information, and how that information transforms over time, yet how the core remains intact.  While our project is based an ethnographic data, it is not an anthropological document. It is a contemporary art project utilizing video, photographs, dance, narrative and visual art.

Dancing at a ceremony in Dzodze, Jill Flanders Crosby PhotographyThis project is informed by long-term fieldwork, 1991-to present, spanning Ghana, Togo and Benin West Africa across to Cuba. Dr. Jill Flanders Crosby, dancer, choreographer and professor of Dance at the University of Alaska Anchorage explores the connections of the Ewe peoples of West Africa to those of the Arará peoples, descendents of the Ewe, living in Cuba as a result of the slave trade. She focuses on the religious dances of the Ewe and Arará people and their shared artistic roots primarily in four specific communities: Dzodze in Ghana, Adjodogou in Togo, and Perico and Agramonte in Cuba.

In Adjodogou, Togo, Jill Flanders Crosby PhotographyThe Arará in Perico and Agramonte have continued the sacred dancing and rituals that were at the heart of their ancestors' West African culture. Elders and religious leaders from both sites note: "We are from Africa," and insist that the Arará folklore in their community is the original, based on the fact that their deities "arrived here directly from Africa" often in the form of "secrets under the skin" of their ancestors. Their African roots are fundamental to their identities.

Between the years of 2005-2010, Flanders Crosby and her research team of Melba Núñez Isalbe and Roberto Pedroso García conducted extensive oral history interviews in Perico and Agramonte. Flanders Crosby carried these elder oral histories and video images of dance and ritual back to Dzodze and Adjodogou in the summers of 2007 and 2010. She presented these Arará stories, steadfast beliefs, dances and rituals to Ewe religious leaders and elders, and initiated a dialogue about similarities and differences that have occurred across geographical and cultural boundaries.

Interviewing Perico Elder Reinaldo Robinson, Brandon McElroy PhotographyVisual artist and percussionist Susan Matthews joined the project in 2006 traveling to Perico and Agramonte Cuba with Flanders Crosby on occasion. Together, they conceived the idea of a contemporary art installation based on Flanders Crosby's extensive research.

Replication of the elder oral histories, danced traditions and rituals was never considered as the ideal option for publication of this work. Although it is a goal that Flanders Crosby's research findings continue to appear in written scholarly works, in a time of blurred genres in ethnographic writing (Behar 2007:145), it is important to reconstruct how ethnography is written and disseminated. This includes performative genres. Thus, Secrets Under the Skin was conceived within this call for creative ethnography and rewriting culture from multiple perspectives.

Dzodze Women look at pictures from Perico Cuba, Brian Jeffery PhotographyFurther collaborators include Melba Núñez Isalbe and Roberto Pedroso García of Havana who joined the project in 2005, assisting with additional Cuban research and with Cuban interviews, translations, and transcriptions. Anchorage based videographer Brandon McElroy and Brian Jeffery, dancer, choreographer, photographer and assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, joined the project in 2008. Performance artist Marianne Kim joined the project in 2009. You will find everyone's individual and collaborative contributions further discussed on the various pages of this website.

Our project became a cross-generational, cross-cultural collaboration between contemporary artists and traditional practitioners from Anchorage, San Francisco, Havana, Perico, Agramonte, Dzodze and Adjodogou. During the development stages of this project over the years from 2006 to 2010, Flanders Crosby was able to share both hers and Matthews' works-in-progress in Ghana and Cuba for comment and reflective feedback. Ideas for the final installation continued to develop between all artists involved.

The final installation included work that represented Performance-Based Video, media, live art, photography, conceptual and visual art. For the show's premiere December 22, 2010 at Fundación Ludwig in Havana, Cuba, live performance was an integral part of the show. Melba Núñez Isalbe read excerpts from the Cuban elder oral histories, Marianne Kim performed her durational live art response and musicians from Perico were able to play on the Fundación Ludwig patio.

The Perico musicians in performance at Fundación Ludwig, Brian Jeffery Photography

Thus, Secrets Under the Skin, for all the artists involved, honored not only our own artistic grounding, but that of the Cuban Arará and Ewe religious practitioners. As theirs is a danced religion and as dance and music-making embrace spiritual expression, it moves these ceremonies into what I like to call pure performance. Therefore, documentation and presentation of these rich ceremonies and their accompanying elder oral histories calls for an innovative, performance-based project.

Translating field work experiences and the stories and lives of those we dance beside into an installation that retains traces of ceremonies, honors and respects African roots, cultural context, elder narratives and core movement qualities, but is recast as a contemporary, multi-disciplinary installation was an exciting change of direction for us as artists and scholars. Such a project, we feel, can more evocatively capture the depth and layered richness of the sensuous forms and resonant elder oral histories that underpin and provide context for the religious dances of the Ewe and the Arará.

Secrets Under the Skin premiered in Havana, Cuba December 22, 2010 at Fundación Ludwig. A two-day event, the first day featured the artworks and videos accompanied by live performances. The second day featured artists' discussions about their work.

The installation was also exhibited at the Museo Municipal Constantino Barredo Guerra in Perico Cuba December 25, 2010. On January 16, 2011, Secrets Under the Skin had its U.S, premiere at the Kimura Gallery, Fine Arts Building, University of Alaska Anchorage Campus. It has since traveled to the Bunnell Street Arts Center, Homer, Alaska with subsequent limited versions in San Francisco involving interactive artists' talks. A skeleton portion of this project was introduced in Ghana and Togo July 2012 for comment and refinement. The entire installation will travel to Ghana July 2013 appearing at the Nubuke Foundation in Accra and at the University of Cape Coast. In May 2014, it will open at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco.

Brandon McElroy's production team from his company Progressive Media Alaska worked tirelessly to help in the difficult task of media production and organization for all the gallery installations to date. Brandon himself was integral in so many ways from his careful organization during fieldwork filming and data management, to his gift of taking edit choices for all the DVD work and working them into artful and thoughtful presentations of exceptional quality.

Hanging the show at the Kimura Gallery, Liu Liu Photography

Our show and our inquiry evolves as we continue to present our work and as we formulate questions about our process. Where does our "first world" spirituality intersect with the traditions that our collaborators preserve, practice and transform? How do we as contemporary artists interface with art forms that are connected to religious practice? As a team of American artists and Cubans from Havana, we question when the line may become blurred between our observation and our genuine participation in ritual events we are attending. How do we influence one another by expanding awareness of the historical threads that connect us? How do traditional themes continue to inform contemporary art and ideas?

Jill Flanders Crosby, Project Director and Lead Investigator

Ceremony in Perico, Brandon McElroy Screenshot

Source Cited:

Behar, Ruth. 2007. "Ethnography in a Time of Blurred Genres." Anthropology and Humanism 32(2): 145-155