Sacred Groves & Secret Parks: Orisha Landscapes in Brazil and West Africa

October 3–4, 2019

This conference is open to the public. For details, see our event listing

This colloquium and exhibition brings together insights on the materiality and spatiality of Afro-religious diasporic practices, decentering Western canons of knowledge and leading to new design possibilities for Brazilian and West African cities.

Landscapes of orisha devotion (orishas is the name given by the Nigerian-Yoruba to the energies of nature that enable all forms of life) are often manifested as sacred groves, where devotees cultivate orishas—deities in Yoruba tradition—using combinations of botanical manipulation, animal sacrifice, music, and dance. In the process, Afro-diasporic memories, knowledge, and environmental understandings are made manifest and empowered. A crucial feature of such spaces is that they often occupy a luscious green expanse, adjacent to urban settings and in some cases occupy areas larger than football fields. Once associated with every town in Yorubaland, the groves of West Africa are now largely depleted. In contrast, orisha groves in Brazilian cities are often protected from the risks that stem from practicing a non-Christian black religious tradition within a wider national racist context. As significant urban green spaces, these landscapes inevitably have an impact on urban ecologies and create important social, cultural, environmental, and political relationships with their surrounding communities.

The colloquium brings together experts from different fields to contribute to research projects intended to elucidate some of these relationships, providing arguments both for the necessary antiracist struggles and the recognition of environmental preservation movements led by black diasporic communities.

While scholarly interest on the African diaspora and the so-called “Black Atlantic” have grown, relatively little attention has turned to the flows and crossed perspectives about spatiality, environmental preservation, and landscape architecture. Speakers share knowledge regarding the materiality, design, and urban forms manifest in landscapes of orisha devotion in Brazil and Nigeria. The colloquium charts new territory in the spatial and material studies of groves, particularly those sacred groves—known in Nigeria as shrines and in Brazil as terreiros—moving from an understanding of what we do know to what we can know.

Cosponsored by the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center, Harvard University; Center for African Studies, Harvard University; David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University; and Provost’s Fund for Interfaculty Collaboration.

See also: Conferences, 2019