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El Cemí de Algodón

On Friday the 13th of April Prof. Dr. Corinne Hofman and Dr. Menno Hoogland visited the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in Turin (Italy) to see the Cemí de Algodón. The Cemí de Algodón is the only known surviving example of an indigenous precolonial cotton cemí from the Caribbean islands.

Corinne Hofman and Menno Hoogland at the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in Turin (Italy) (photo courtesy of Corinne L. Hofman)

Cemí's in Historical Documentation

There are a few early historical accounts of cotton reliquaries. Due to the cemís’ appearance, European colonists viewed them with a mixture of curiosity and revulsion.  According to these chronicles, the cemí’s, as physical manifestations of significant ancestors, were used by the Indigenous as intercessors and mediators with which communication with ancestors, spirits, and the spiritual realms were made possible. It is believed that the cotton figures, like the Cemí de Algodón, represented – and held the remains of – behiques (shamans).

It is believed that the cotton reliquaries were one of many categories of cemí’s and formed an elaboration of the more common indigenous practice of keeping ancestral remains to be used in daily and ritual veneration practices.

The Cemí of Algodón front view (photo courtesy of Corinne L. Hofman)
The Cemí of Algodón back view (photo courtesy of Corinne L. Hofman)
The Cemí of Algodón close-up of face (photo courtesy of Corinne L. Hofman)

The Cemi de Algodón

During the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries countless cotton cemí’s were brought to Europe. Unfortunately, many of them deteriorated or were destroyed. The Cemí de Algodón is the only known surviving example of a cotton cemí in the world. Supposedly, the Cemí was found in a cave west of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, somewhere before 1891. The history of its’ transfer to Europe and its subsequent movement remains vague until today. In 1970 Bernardo Vega traced the figure to the Museum of Turin through archival photographs he found in the British Museum.

Vega (1987 [1971]) was subsequently also the first to conduct a major study of the figure. In this study, radiographs of the internal structure were made. These clearly showed the human cranium enclosed in the cotton weave. The opaque bulky center of the figure was interpreted as stone. A recent CT study by Martina and colleagues (2010) has revealed the internal structure of the Cemi in incredible detail.

Three CT views of the interior of the Cemí de Algodón, showing the internal structure of the human cranium and shaped stone fastened to wooden base supports (ostapkowicz and Newsom 2012, 307).

Skills of the Maker

Cotton cemí’s were hand-made, intricate designs that eloquently brought into view the juxtaposition of life and death. The creation of cotton cemí’s demanded an investment of time, artistry, and knowledge, which was grounded in the shared belief of their potential of forces as intermediaries for the benefit of the community, whilst visually reinforcing strong ancestral links between the living and the dead. The Cemí de Algodón demonstrates the expressive power harvested by the wood and stone sculptured foundation overlain with a complex design of spun cotton, flexible canes, naturally occurring colorants, and shell inlays.

Close-up showing the intricate design and craftsmanship of the Cemí (photo courtesy of Corinne L. Hofman)
Close up showing the intricate design and craftsmanship of the Cemí (photo courtesy of Corinne L. Hofman)
Close-up showing the intricate design and crafsmanship of the Cemí (photo courtesy of Corinne L. Hofman)

Sources:

Martina, María C., Federico Cesarani, Rosa Boano, Emma Rabino Massa, Claudio C. Ventur, and Giovanni Gandini. 2010. Scenes from the Past: Multidetector CT of an Antillean Zemi Idol. Radiographics 30:1193-1999. 

Oliver, José R. 2009. Caciques and Cemí Idols. The Web Spun by Taíno Rulers Between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press. 

Ostapkowicz, J. and Newsom, L. 2012. "Gods... Adorned with the Embroiderer's Needle": the materials, making and meaning of Taíno cotton reliquary. Latin American Antiquity 23(3): 300-326. 

Vega, B. 1987 [1971]. Santos, Shamanes, y Zemíes. Santo Domingo: Fundación Cultural Dominicana. 

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