The altar is near the sites of an old slave jail and the execution of Gabriel, who launched a revolt against slaveholders.
It was something like finding an Easter egg last month, when one of the magazine's graphic artists stumbled on a hidden curiosity while taking a detour from an assignment to explore the Lumpkin's Slave Jail site in Shockoe Bottom.
Just north of Broad Street, in a sliver of trees between I-95 and 16th Street, our staffer found this altar (pictured). Our best guess was that the small, brightly painted construction, bolted to a tree, was a nod to Santeria, a Caribbean religion, or vodoun, the African-based religion practiced by some African slaves in early America.
In a hunt for some definitive answers, we were ultimately led to the shrine's creator, Keith Mendak, a 29-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University graduate art student.
Mendak has already made a splash for his series of altars — under the name Project Hope — that he has left around town since Nov. 4, 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president.
"I put them in historically significant sites," Mendak says, "in this town fecund with ties to slavery and civil rights, as a way to say, ‘we did it.' "
Having kicked a few stones to understand the symbolism, we asked Mendak for an explanation.
He says the small shrine is best described as
a "poly-ethnic American altar," which ties to both Santeria and vodoun. "My heritage is all over the map, and some of it unknown, since my father is from an adopted family."
He improvised with some key symbols.
"In vodoun, a mirror is important as a passage between here and the abyss, that kind of gate that would be manned by Papa Legba [a liaison between people and spirits]. An active symbol in vodoun, an ornate cross, is more of a plus sign, a dividing line — above is the earth and below its reflection is the abyss."
The vessel, full of rice, and the glass eye overlooking the site were crafted by Mendak. The orange and plantain, he explains, are offerings to the spirits.
Other items, he says, appeared on their own. "One of the things I've found out about these altars," he says, "is that people contribute to them."
Having placed the altar weeks ago, he expressed mild surprise that it was still there. Others he set around town have vanished already. "I don't come with expectations," he says. "If they stay, they stay. If they don't, they don't."