Harold Mendez

For a more recent CV or bio please visit the artist's website, https://haroldmendez.com/
BirthplaceChicago, Illinois
Light Work RelationshipArtist-in-Residence, 2020
Light Work PublicationsContact Sheet 212




The Orishas crossed the Atlantic alongside Yoruban people in the cargo holds of ships. When these ships landed in Spanish-occupied places in the time of the Transatlantic slave trade, such as Cuba or Puerto Rico, the Orishas hid in plain sight in the guise of Catholic saints and a West African religion took on a new form and a new name: Santeria. Like its sisters—Vodun from Haiti to New Orleans, Candomble and Umbanda in Portuguese Brazil, and Trinidad Orisha throughout the southern Caribbean—Santeria and its practitioners are devoted to this pantheon of divine intermediaries. In all these places, the Orishas steward their children and advocate on their behalf to Olodumare, the Supreme Being and creator of existence.

     Such protection is not without cost. Important across the diaspora of Yoruban religions is a practice of offering edible items—fruits, vegetables, honey, and cooked meals, as well as the animal sacrifices for which the religion has been stigmatized—as thanks or payment. Eggplants for Oya, the Orisha of the wind and storms, a warrior who lights up the sky when battling alongside Shango, whose drums create the sound of thunder. A rooster for Elegua, the Orisha of the crossroads between realms and the transitory spaces like intersections. Alongside Ogun, Ochosi, and Osun, Elegua is a warrior who opens paths, removes obstacles, and protects the devotee from harm. One gives such offerings for a length of time and then discards them in a place in accordance with the Orisha’s wishes: in the forest, at the marketplace, in the cemetery, by the river, or elsewhere. If not offerings in devotion to the Orishas, these same items act as stand-ins for the body of a person afflicted by a curse or other maladies called osogbo. Released, the negative energy moves from the human body into the animal or vegetable, which must be discarded. The human body registers its absence through these physical remainders, a concept that connects to themes of absences that run deeply through Harold Mendez's work in photography, sculpture, and installation.

     The religion gives equal attention to Egun, the spirits of the ancestors who came before and paved the way for each of our physical beings in the world. Mendez made photographs of discarded offerings while looking for his own artistic Egun. Belkis Ayón was a Cuban printmaker and practitioner of Santeria who earned the confidence of members of its inner circle in Havana. Ayón’s stark black, white, and grayscale collographs on paper are softened by her figures’ sinuous limbs: Santeros and members of its fraternity, Abakuá.
     En route to Ayón’s grave, Mendez found offerings that someone left for the Orishas or else decoys for the Santero in need of relief from a curse. Mendez shot each of his photographs from the perspective of the artist who looked down upon the scene rather than the practitioner who knelt to place the offering on the ground or the Orisha who received it. This has the effect of making him a third party observing a transaction between the spiritual and material realms. 
   Among the offerings he found were eggplants and a rooster buried beneath a veil of pink blossoms. He presents this scene twice in his diptych, The days of yesterday are all numbered in sum. Each of the two images looks down upon the scene from a slightly different angle. In the studio, the artist dusted the surface of the image with a semi-transparent haze of charcoal and graphite that translates the shower of flowers into the photographic image. Along his journey to pay reverence to the grave of his artistic ancestor, Ayón, Mendez found traces of rituals in other places as well—concentric circles where pigment had been laid down or else rings that marked where materials had been removed from the floor. On the surface of photographic paper, the stains of blood and scratches left from ritual performances upon a material surface blur into shadows.

     Another image, called For other days, depicts consecrated objects tucked inside a plastic bag near a gravesite—discarded at the threshold of the material world as it meets the spiritual. Though the photograph registers its presence, these objects are no longer of this world. They live on for other realms, for other entities.

Risa Puleo

Risa Puleo is an independent curator living in Chicago, IL.

Harold Mendez lives in Los Angeles, CA, and completed his residency at Light Work in the fall of 2020. www.haroldmendez.com