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The photographic exhibit African Continuum: Sacred Ceremonies and Rituals, now at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora showcases the work of Bryan Wiley, a photojournalist who has traveled throughout the African Diaspora documenting and photographing altars and ritual practices by people of African descent. Wiley’s photographs illuminate continuities in spiritual beliefs and customs of black people since the days of slavery.

His journey with such an ambitious project began in the early 1990’s when he started visiting many places like Africa, Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, South Carolina and New Orleans and photographing spiritual phenomena. Born in Philadelphia, to acclaimed jazz tenor saxophonist Ed Wiley and jazz singer Maye Robinson-Wiley, Bryan and his six siblings grew up in a household filled with music and art. This total immersion in the creative spirit is what helped to shape his destiny.  As a child, he remembers being fascinated by spirit things when watching his grandmother going into a trance by “catching the holy ghost” and speaking in unknown tongues at church. This was his first introduction to the spiritual world.

Wiley also says that the very first time that he traveled to Bahia, Brazil where he was invited to a sacred ceremony and allowed to photograph it, he knew he was on to something special that would take a lot of time and patience.  “I always envisioned this being a traveling exhibition and a book,” he recalls.

Wiley’s inspiration for African Continuum: Sacred Ceremonies and Rituals first began when he attended a musical concert in Lagos where he met Fela Kuti, the famous Nigerian singer who was also a noted political figure. He was taken aback when he saw Fela, before going on stage to perform, doing some type of African ritual at an intricate altar where a chicken was sacrificed. “The ritual only lasted about 5 or so minutes, but what fascinated me the most, was the powerful energy that filled the room during and afterwards!  I had no idea of what I just had witnessed, but I knew that I wanted to find out more,” he explains. 

After learning that Fela’s ritual was some type of voodoo, Wiley began researching West African, nature-based religious practices that came from African slave traditions to such countries as Cuba, Haiti and Brazil. He began photographing some of the things that he saw during his research and travels.

“When I decided to start photographing for African Continuum, it was on a hope and a prayer, and my basic way to travel was to work two or three jobs, save up enough money and put everything in storage and hope for the best,” said Wiley. I never really worried about what would happen when I came back with no place to live. My main concern was to make sure that I shot all the hundreds of rolls of film that I took with me when traveling. It always seemed to work itself out, so I kept traveling and taking pictures. I figured since I didn’t have children and wasn’t married, the weight of not having material things would only burden me and no one else.”

It was in 2004, that a generous gentleman named Steve Luczo took interest in his work.  He was given 2 small 5x7 black and white prints of an image from Brazil and an image from Cuba that had been hanging in a facial salon in California. Luczo liked his photographs so much that he decided to sponsor Wiley for 5 years.  “It was a huge blessing because it allowed me to gather myself and focus solely on the art and getting me a step closer to completion,” said Wiley.

008Wiley’s African Continuum collection focuses on the power of the natural elements: earth, wind, fire and water as manifested in spiritual practices that reveal the blurred lines between the sacred and secular worlds. He has photographed aspects of some of the world's least understood spiritual practices, such as voodoo and Santeria, a system of beliefs that merge the Yoruba religion and Native American traditions.  During his many travels, he got opportunities to meet and photograph different types of religious leaders and ceremonies.  He has captured pictures of different voodoo altars, Haitian dancers and various spiritual rituals. His images magically bring to life the mysterious power and grace of traditions and spiritual practices from all over the globe.

So far, this exhibition has only been two places. Wiley did an international solo-show at a major gallery in Bahia, Brazil in 2006, where he had 50 mural sized prints on exhibit. This photo exhibit created the biggest turn-out ever in that gallery’s 20 year existence. Now he has the Africa Continuum exhibit at the MOAD, where it will be on display until August 28th.  “My hope is that this exhibit will continue traveling to different cities and countries,” says Wiley, who has worked as a high school photography teacher and guest photography instructor at an Art Academy in the past.

“The journey has been very rewarding. It has reiterated the fact that if you put in the hard work, along with good intentions, great things will come to fruition. Since I’ve been on this journey, I have listened to my spiritual voice more. So I just continue doing the work as I always have to keep the dream alive.”

For more information, visit www.moadsf.org.

More of Bryan Wiley's photos:

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In 2000, African bones were discovered in Pelourinho (whipping post) where slaves were sold.  The old slave-auction site on Largo do Pelourinho has recently been renovated into a memorial site.
Senhor do Bonfim, Brazil


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A man prays outside the National Cathedral.
Port-au-Prince, Haiti

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As women go into trance, they become the Orisha (spirit) that possesses them.
Salvador da Bahia, Brazil

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"After the dance, the drum is heavy," is an old Haitian proverb. Drums play a primary role in ceremonies and are often believed to carry a soul within them. The highest rank of salutation goes to the drums, with the Hougan or mambo sometimes kissing the ground or pouring libations before them.
Port-au-Prince, Haiti

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"Crossed Hands."  
Senhor do Bonfim, Brazil

 

 

 

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Bryan Wiley