Religion, Aesthetics, and Black Diasporic Tradition: Jamaican Kumina Practice Then & Now

Nadia Ellis
UC Berkeley

My new book project focuses on the relationship between black religion and black aesthetics, emphasizing the development of a rhetoric that can mediate between techniques of criticism and those techniques of perception, insight, and aesthetic judgment that are central to Afro-descended religious practice. Focusing on case studies from Jamaica, the book spans from the early twentieth century to the contemporary era, featuring questions and explorations around divination, dance, film, and literary form. This grant supports research for my chapter on a particular religion: the Kongo-descended, Jamaican-creolized Kumina religion. Kumina is a multi-sensory ancestrally-oriented tradition renowned for its ceremonies that center dance, drumming, and KiKongo-based song. My work this summer in Jamaica focuses on bringing into dialogue archival recordings of the late, esteemed Kumina priestess Imogene “Queenie” Kennedy with first-hand observations of current Kumina communities. The way that Kumina “happens” now, a mode that Queenie’s videos and recordings from the 1980s very much presaged, is not just amongst community members, but also as hybrid demonstrations to attendees and participants of cultural festivals, or intimate unfoldings to people like me—curious, uninitiated, broad in their diasporic understanding of Afro-descended religion. To further develop ideas around mediation, audience, lineage, and initiation in Kumina, I travel to Kingston, Portland, and St. Thomas in eastern Jamaica to attend Kumina demonstrations, interview practitioners, and review archival deposits related to Kumina practices in the late 20th century and into the present day.