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

Osun Sacred Grove, Osogbo, Nigeria (left) and view of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil (right)

Photos: Adolphus Opara, Osun Sacred Grove, Osogbo, Nigeria (left) and Leonardo Finotti, Terreiro Vodun Zo, Salvador da Bahia, Brazil (right)

The Sacred Groves & Secret Parks colloquium and exhibition will bring 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 are often manifested as sacred groves, where devotees cultivate orishas—deities, or energies of nature, in Yoruba tradition that enable all forms of life—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 largely depleted. In contrast, orisha groves in Brazilian cities are plentiful but are often protected by the necessity for secrecy that stems from practicing African traditions 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.

While scholarly interest on the African-diaspora and the so-called “Black Atlantic” have grown, relatively little attention has turned to the flows and interwoven perspectives about spatiality, environmental preservation, and landscape architecture. The colloquium will bring together experts from different fields to contribute to research projects intended to elucidate some of these relationships, providing arguments both for the necessary anti-racist struggles and the recognition of environmental preservation movements led by black diasporic communities.

Speakers will share knowledge regarding the materiality, conservation, design, and spatial forms manifest in landscapes of orisha devotion in Brazil and Nigeria. The colloquium will chart 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.

This colloquium and exhibition hosted by the Department of Landscape Architecture in collaboration with the:




Introductions by Anita Berrizbeitia, Alejandro de la Fuente, and Gareth Doherty


Jacob Olupona,“Introduction to African Religious Traditions”


10am–12 noon

Panel 1, Materialities: The energies of nature (orishas) and their spatial relationships, including the mineral, botanical, and animal conditions required for rituals.

  • Moisés Lino e Silva (Federal University of Bahia) and Gareth Doherty (Harvard GSD), “The Rainbow, the Snake and the River: A Secret Park in Brazil and a Sacred Grove in Nigeria”
  • Tao DuFour (Cornell University), “Tupinikim Chegou! A Phenomenological Ethnography of Space”
  • Vilson Caetano de Sousa Jr. (Federal University of Bahia), “Kosi Ewé Kosi Orisa: The Use of Plants in Afro-Brazilian Religions”*
  • Erwan Dianteill (Sorbonne), “Where is Ifa? Building Sacred Places in Ifa Divination in Porto-Novo, Benin”

Moderated by Bruno Carvalho and Danielle Choi


Thursday, 2–4pm

Panel 2, Cases in Conservation: Sacred groves, shrines and landscapes of orisha devotion in West Africa and Brazil that have been conserved. The panel will address the future needs of sacred groves in light of pressures for development.

  • Paula Gomes (Cultural Ambassador of the Alaafin of Oyo), “The Oyo Cultural Conservation Project”
  • Maria Alice Pereira da Silva (Federal University of Bahia), “The Xango Stone: At the Crossroads of the Diaspora”*
  • Olatunji Adejumo (University of Lagos), “Landscape Essence in the Restoration of Ile Oba Sacred Orisha Grove”
  • Dominique Juhé-Beaulaton (Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris) “Urban Sacred Woods of the Vodu Area in Benin and Togo: Contemporary Social Dynamics and Conservation Perspectives”

Moderated by Susan Nigra Snyder and George E. Thomas


Thursday, 5–7pm

Exhibition opening:

A parallel exhibition of photographs by Alophus Opara of the Osun Sacred Grove in Nigeria and by Leonardo Finotti of terreiros in Salvador da Bahia will help articulate the spatial conditions of sacred groves and secret parks.

The Neil L. and Angelica Zander Rudenstine Gallery, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, 104 Mount Auburn St, 3R.

On view Mondays to Fridays, 10am­–4pm, through December 16.


Friday, October 4


Panel 3, Designing Sacred Groves: Design processes for new sacred groves and for the redevelopment of others and a discussion of their plans and aspirations.

  • Marcelo Ferraz (Brasil Arquitetura, São Paulo), “Casa de Oxumarê, Salvador: The Future of the Traditional”
  • Adriano Mascarenhas (Sotero Arquitetos, Salvador), “Lessons from Designing the New Terreiro Tingongo Muendê”
  • Vilma Patricia Santana Silva (Federal University of Bahia), “Guided by Cowries, Designed by Orishas: Respecting the Architecture of Candomblé Terreiros”*

Moderated by Gareth Doherty and Gary Hilderbrand

— 12–1:30pm, Síntesis: Una vision de la herencia musical afro-cubana, recital of Afro-Cuban music, presented by Institute Cervantes, Leverett Library, 28 DeWolfe St.—


Friday, 2–4pm

Panel 4, Urban Ecologies: What environmental role do sacred groves play and promise for their adjacent cities? What are the political forces mobilized through the public celebration of rituals? What are the political ecologies relating to environment, gender, race, and sexuality?

  • Samuel Lira Gordenstein, (Applied Earthworks, Inc., Los Angeles, CA), “Divinity Worship in Urban Quarters: A View from Late-Nineteenth Century Salvador, Brazil”
  • Fábio Macêdo Velame (Federal University of Bahia), “Candomblé Terreiros and the Architecture of the City: Conflict and Resistance in Public Spaces in Bahia”*
  • Princess Adedoyin Talabi Faniyi (Osogbo, Nigeria) “The Politics of Orishas: How Osun Saved the Grove”

Moderated by John Beardsley and Forster O. Ndubisi


Friday, 4–4:20pm

Wrapping up session

* Presentation will be in Portuguese.

This colloquium will be live-streamed. Simultaneous translation will be available.



Olatunji Adejumo (Lagos, Nigeria) is a landscape architect, natural resources planner, and Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture, University of Lagos. Dr. Adejumo’s research theorizes indigenous planning and its influence on rethinking the public realm as a place where culture and nature work together.

Erwan Dianteill (Paris, France) is Professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the Sorbonne (Paris Descartes University). Since 2007, he has been conducting fieldwork in Porto-Novo, Benin, on the transformation of the Fa/Ifa divination in a modern African city. 

Gareth Doherty (Cambridge, MA) is Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture and Director of the Master in Landscape Architecture Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Doherty’s research and teaching focus on the intersections between landscape architecture and anthropology in postcolonial and Islamic societies.

Tao DuFour (Ithaca, NY) is Assistant Professor at the Department of Architecture, Cornell University. His research focuses on phenomenological accounts of the experience of spatiality and the ‘natural’ world, and explores the relationship between ethnography as a descriptive method and phenomenological description.

Princess Adedoyin Talabi Faniyi (Osogbo, Nigeria) is an Orisha high priestess and the daughter of Chief Susanne Wenger. Princess Adedoyin is a key volunteer of The Adunni Olorisha Trust working to protect the Sacred Groves of Osogbo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Marcelo Ferraz (São Paulo, Brazil) is a co-founder of Brasil Arquitetura and professor at the Escola da Cidade in São Paulo. The firm has developed projects for museums, residential buildings, social housing, and community and cultural centers. Ferraz has received many awards for his work.

Paula Gomes (Oyo, Nigeria) was appointed Honorary Cultural Ambassador by the Alaafin of Oyo in 2012. A Portuguese citizen, Paula studied linguistics and history at the University of Augsburg in Germany and has researched Yoruba culture and spirituality since 1992.

Samuel Lira Gordenstein (Los Angeles, CA) is a Senior Historical Archaeologist at Applied Earthworks, Inc. His current research in Bahia focuses on the urban experience of the Afro-Brazilian population during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Dominique Juhé-Beaulaton (Paris, France) is an historian and research director at the French National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS). Dr Juhé-Beaulaton has worked for a long time on the history of landscapes and the management of ‘natural areas,’ particularly sacred forests in West Africa.

Moisés Lino e Silva (Salvador, Brazil) is Assistant Professor of Anthropological Theory at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). He works within the field of political anthropology, specializing in the ethnographic study of freedom and authority as related to poverty, sexuality, and religion.

Adriano Mascarenhas (Salvador, Brazil) is a founding partner in SOTERO Arquitetos, a Brazilian international design firm headquartered in Salvador da Bahia that specializes in architecture, urban planning, and interiors.

Jacob Olupona (Cambridge, MA) is Professor of African Religious Traditions, and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Professor Olupona, who joined the Harvard Faculty of Divinity and Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 2006, is a noted scholar of indigenous African religions.

Maria Alice Pereira da Silva (Salvador, Brazil) researches current Afro-Brazilian issues, with particular interest within the fields of human rights, social inclusion and public policies. Maria Alice is an attorney, holds an MA and is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the Federal University of Bahia.

Vilma Patricia Santana Silva (Salvador, Brazil) is a graduate student in architecture and urbanism at the Federal University of Bahia. Guided by Afro-Brazilian deities, she has designed and built several terreiro community projects as a volunteer architect.

Vilson Caetano de Sousa Jr. (Salvador, Brazil) is Babalorisha at Terreiro Ilê Obà L’Okê in Salvador and a professor at the Federal University of Bahia. Vilson has a research focus on Afro-Brazilian populations and has worked on the anthropology of food for over 30 years.

Fábio Velame (Salvador, Brazil) is professor in the Faculty of Architecture at the Federal University of Bahia. His research includes sacred groves and ethnic-African architecture as well as Afro-Brazilian slave housing and quilombos.



John Beardsley (Washington DC) was an adjunct professor at the GSD from 1998–2013 and recently stepped down from his position as Director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Beardsley is editor of Cultural Landscape Heritage in Sub-Saharan Africa (2016).

Anita Berrizbeitia (Cambridge, MA) is Professor of Landscape Architecture and Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Harvard GSD. Berrizbeitia’s research focuses on design theories of modern and contemporary landscape architecture, the productive aspects of landscapes, and Latin American cities and landscapes.

Bruno Carvalho (Cambridge, MA) is Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, Affiliated Professor in African and African American Studies and an Affiliated Professor in Urban Planning and Design at Harvard GSD. Carvalho’s research and teaching interests include literature, culture, and the built environment, with a focus on Brazil.

Danielle Choi (Cambridge, MA) is Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Choi’s research concerns infrastructure, technology, and the synthetic role of landscape architecture in American urbanization.

Alejandro de la Fuente (Cambridge, MA) is the Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics and Professor of African and African American Studies and of History and Director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard University.

Gary R. Hilderbrand (Cambridge, MA) is a founding principal of Reed Hilderbrand, and the Peter Louis Hornbeck Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture at Harvard GSD where he has taught since 1990. Hilderbrand has an abiding commitment to promoting a heightened focus on urban forestry practices.

Forster O. Ndubisi (College Station, TX) is a professor and head of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A & M University. Dr. Ndubisi specializes in ecological design and planning, community design, growth management, and interdisciplinary design education.

Susan Nigra Snyder (Philadelphia, PA) is a Lecturer in Architecture at Harvard GSD and Area Head of the Critical Conservation MDes area group. Snyder is a registered architect practicing with George E. Thomas, Ph.D., a cultural and architectural historian in CivicVisions.

George E. Thomas (Philadelphia, PA) is a Lecturer in Architecture at Harvard GSD and Area Head of the Critical Conservation MDes area group. Thomas is a cultural and architectural historian practicing with Susan Nigra Snyder, a registered architect in CivicVisions.



Síntesis (Havana, Cuba) is one of the emblematic ensembles of contemporary Cuban music known for the richness, variety and conceptual structure of their sonic style. They pioneered the fusion of Afro-Cuban ritual music with contemporary jazz and rock music. Since the late 1970s, they have developed a unique style and are among the most recognized and popular musical groups of the island. Albums by Síntesis, ANCENTROS I, II and III, are part of the Cuban rock-fusion classics.



Leonardo Finotti (São Paulo, Brazil) is an artist/photographer of international reputation who visually explores cities and architecture. Finotti’s work has been shown in many solo and group exhibitions and it is part of collections at MoMA, CMoA, Kunstmuseum Chur, and the Bauhaus, among others. Finotti founded obra comunicação, a collaborative communication office that produces articles, exhibitions, and catalogs.

Adolphus Opara (Lagos, Nigeria). Opara’s work is induced by encounters with people and their daily effort to exist amidst obstacles that define and situate their individual locality. Opara uses visual storytelling to better understand as well as to show his connection to the issues that confronts him daily. Opara’s work has been widely exhibited at many international venues including the Tate Modern in London.

Michelle Jean de Castro (São Paulo, Brazil) is an architect and curator and has designed exhibitions, especially photo-installations, internationally. Michelle is founder of lama-sp, an artist run space in downtown São Paulo that produces exhibitions and publications that focus on photography, architecture and cityscape.

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