Tropenmusuem, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
October 31, 2008 – May 10, 2009
(Previously at the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève, Geneva, Switzerland. Also to be exhibited at the Varldskulturmuseet, Gothenburg, Sweden; the Überseemuseum, Bremen, Germany; and the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany, 2009-2011.)
Never have I felt so culturally inadequate while confronting a group of tangible things as when viewing the extraordinary Haitian Vodou objects currently on an extended tour of European museums. The bewildering syncretism of American devotions that emerged from African slave experiences is at least partially familiar from Santería and Candomblé, but in Haitian Vodou the art is made of materials associated with poverty and improvisation to an even greater extent than in those predominantly Cuban and Brazilian religions.
Using items ranging from stone carvings (such as caterpillars) fashioned by the Taíno people (pre-contact indigenous inhabitants of Hispaniola) adopted by Vodou adepts, to contemporary elaborately beaded and sequined banners, houngans (priests) and mambos (priestesses) honor over four hundred lwa. Each lwa is chameleon, revealing a different aspect of itself in different circumstances, including aspects that resemble Roman Catholic saints. For instance, the powerful father figure lwa Danmbala is associated with snakes, and thus with St. Patrick, and sometimes Moses. Unlikely as it may seem, Erzulie Dantor, a mother figure lwa, at times assumes the aspect of the Polish miraculous image, the Black Virgin of Częstochowa. How does one explain such a strange cultural conjunction? It is just possible that knowledge of the image was brought by Poles fighting in the Haitian Revolution when Haiti—then the immensely productive French sugar colony of Saint Domingue—violently procured its independence in the early nineteenth century.
Each lwa consists of seven esprits (spirits), and has seven lescots (guardians), making for an even more complex iconography than that of syncretic shape-shifting alone. Each is complemented by its own graphic sign—vévé. The lwa are represented in polychrome statues made of a variety of materials, from padded fabric to concrete, and also on banners carried by hounsis (sacred dancers) who serve the lwa in rites of propitiation and possession at hounfors (temples).
As well as enacting rites, houngans and mambos trap forces derived from natural substances in a variety of containers—jars, pots, bottles—for a range of uses. These pakes store forces that have to be contained with great care and circumspection, so they are sealed, wrapped tightly in fabrics, tied with twine, and embellished with intimidating objects—a toy Godzilla, a human skull. We shall never know what lurks within them. Unlike a Plains Indian medicine bundle, they are not designed to be opened. Thank goodness!
Some hounfors function openly, allowing even the uninitiated to witness worship around the Poteau Mitan, the sacred pole at the center of the temple that the lwa descend and souls ascend. Others are strictly secret societies, organized on military lines that ostensibly date back to eighteenth-century groups of escaped slaves and others who resisted the French colonial planter order. These societies, such as the Bizango, harness forces associated with those lwa of the type known as Petro: hot, fast, and particularly dangerous. Their pakes are wrapped in predominantly black and red fabrics, and are protected by fragments of mirror sewn onto them. The Bizango also employ life-size figures made of padded patchwork fabrics, again mostly in black and red—some horned, some winged, some mutilated—studded with protective mirrors, and reportedly containing human bones. So potent are they that those seated in chairs are restrained with rope or chains. In low museum lighting, emulating conditions of nighttime ritual encounter when one might imagine them enlivened by flickering torchlight, they exude intimidation. Equally unnerving are the mirrors used by houngans to make contact with the spirit world. The exhibition contains an array of large baroque looking glasses in gilded frames that have been turned from planters’ luxuries into portals of otherworldly communion by embellishment with representations of lwa, such as a seven-headed serpent, and accessories including a chain hung with gourds.
These objects are not on view to provide carnival frissons of fear. The theology they represent is complex, sophisticated, and as capable of evoking beneficence as it is malevolence. There can be no doubt, though, that association with violent struggle and ecclesiastical as well as political repression over generations has made Vodou practitioners self-protective. The notorious Duvaliers, father and son, successive presidents of Haiti between 1957 and 1986, used fear of Vodou, and some priests’ knowledge of their devotees’ attitudes and actions, to further their dictatorial interests, so that following Bébé Doc’s fall Vodou suffered at least a partial reversal of fortune.
It was in these circumstances that a Swiss woman, Marianne Lehmann, who has lived in Port-au-Prince since 1957, began collecting Vodou objects brought to her at first by representatives of houngans desperate to raise funds in difficult circumstances. She progressively gained the trust of those who, for various reasons, felt the need to relinquish their cult objects. The exhibition organized by the Musée d’ethnographie of Geneva, touring Europe until 2011, is drawn exclusively from her now enormous collection. Her intention is that this patrimony should not leave Haiti, but be cared for in a necessarily privately financed, purpose-built museum in Port-au-Prince. This is an admirable aim. And to the relief of all, not least of those who take the sacred of whatever tradition seriously, the religious objects have all been ritually desacralized. Although they may no longer be used for the purposes for which they were made, they will remain within the society that produced them, available to all who wish to wonder at the ingenuity of desperation and numinous inspiration that occasioned their fashioning.