An essay by R.C. Brictson
The essay concerns the art exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man from May 2001 — February 2002

This new Voodoo exhibition at the Museum Of Man in San Diego's Balboa Park consists of more than one hundred objects by 50 artists dating from 1945 through 2001—paintings, beaded flags (drapo), Voodoo paraphernalia, and sculptures fashioned from steel oil drums or wood. Jacmel artist Prefete Duffaut introduces his "Island of Haiti-2001" in a new work that incorporates twelve lwa (spirits) dispersed like "apostles'' as guardians across the terrain. All the works are from the private collection of La Jolla resident Dr. Robert Brictson who also lives in Jacmel, Haiti, a 17th century coffee port where he has owned a gingerbread gallery-home since 1973. The show also includes a 13-minute film by Oscar winner Jonathan Demme that celebrates the talent and perspectives of Edger Jean Baptiste who recalls his career before his blindness in 1985. He is renowned for his vivid crepuscular sunsets, narrative art and Voodoo spirits. Later, during Fall 2001, the internationally renowned Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth, who also is a collector, has agreed to premier a new film, "The Dreamers," which will include rare footage of master artists over the last 20 years. Interviews in the film will reveal "...another Haiti, where creativity and optimism seem inexhaustible...a strong sense of historical destiny..."with inspiration from the Voodoo universe and the dream of paradise.

Voodoo evolved as the predominant religion of the Haitian people by merging many traditions imported by enslaved Africans to the New World. Black and Carib peoples endured dehumanizing, tyrannical conditions for five centuries. The diaspora and their exposure to European traditions, including Roman Catholic practices, defined and differentiated Voodoo beliefs and rituals. Art inspired by Voodoo provides new insights on the beauty and mystery of Afro-Caribbean religion and culture. The show celebrates resilience, imagination and creativity emerging from a turbulent history of conquest, migration, genocide, greed, missionary fervor, slavery, persecution, colonial racism and despotism. Creative variations and visions in the arts emerged from revolution, independence in 1804 and isolation of the first black republic as it evolved in a Caribbean context where slavery continued for another 80 years. Voodoo spirits also serve as muses, inspiring the miracle of Haitian art that has since 1945 been internationally acclaimed by museums, galleries, authors, critics and collectors.

Basically, the collection challenges Hollywood images of Caribbean religion and culture. Films portray menacing zombies rising from the dead and dark jungle Voodoo rites targeting innocent intruders. Scenes of curses, spells, possession, blood sacrifice and hints of cannibalism distort the heritage and practices of Haitian religion and Afro-Caribbean cultures. Since the 1930's sensationalized views have been foisted on American consciousness by Pop culture storytellers working in Hollywood dream factories. More recently, public figures seeking memorable sound bites also perpetuate negative stereotypes by ridicule of Voodoo economics or science. Uninformed or thoughtless media, politicians and musicians hope audiences will respond to such tabloid prose and derogatory, pejorative use. Fortunately, anthropologists, ethnologists, art historians and other scholars have traced the rituals and their context, linking them to African roots. New patterns emerged in this Caribbean crucible, transformed by the slave trade, colonial exploitation and the mix of indigenous and exotic cultures.

On the magic island of Haiti one is never alone physically or spiritually. Voodoo spirits are omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient, particularly among the Creole-speaking peasants. This first black republic now has 8 million people in a country the size of Vermont or Maryland and is the most densely populated nation of the Western Hemisphere. A1972 analysis by the Organization of American States (OAS) concluded that Haiti was the most exotic, cordial and inexpensive Caribbean nation. This pearl of the Antilles occupies the mountainous western third of Hispaniola. Haiti's art displays its past and convictions, reflecting pride in an exciting history. Columbus named the island Hispaniola when he landed on December 6, 1492. As St. Domingue under the French it was the richest colony in the New World, surpassing the newly independent American colonies until its freedom in 1804 after 14 years of revolution. A cross-cultural heritage includes Spanish, French, Taino-Carib, Orinoco Basin Indian, African slave and buccaneer traditions that continue to inspire artists.

Today the nation's exotic, verdant land and sea resources are scarred and depleted from exploitation by colonizers, its own rulers and over population. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with a per capita income of $300, an average life expectancy of 54 years, 50% illiteracy, 70% unemployment and a brain drain diaspora of almost two million citizens who now live abroad. Recently a second U.S. occupation in October, 1994, ousted the Raoul Cedras Military Junta and restored to office the first democratically elected President— Jean Bertrand Aristide. A United Nations Mission later took command of all foreign troops. A presidential election in late 1995 brought Rene Preval to office for a 5-year term because the Haitian constitution prohibits consecutive terms. Aristide was elected again in 2000 by a large majority and inaugurated in February 2001. Controversy prompted an opposition boycott of the election and subsequent establishment of a shadow presidency with negotiations over demands for new elections and reforms being monitored by OAS. Some regard peaceful succession as a healthy sign for fledgling democracies, but Haiti remains preoccupied with activating ministries, establishing a viable criminal justice system, combating narcotrafficing, providing essential services in a subsistence economy, and proving itself eligible to receive approximately half a billion dollars in committed international aid now held in abeyance.

Former curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modem Art in New York, Pierre Apraxine asserts, "African Religion was the one cohesive force to survive the ordeal of slavery." One might add that its resilience has also withstood revolutions, independence and the impact of 20th century modernization. "Voodoo" comes from a Dahomean word meaning "god." Expert Milo Rigaud explains that "vo" signifies "introspection" and "du" means "the unknown" - a stimulus for artists and believers alike. Today Voodoo inspires and involves, protects and pervades all facets of Haitian culture. Like the lares and penates of Rome as well as the gods and muses of Greece, more than four hundred lwa, sometimes mischievous, always powerful, are part of most households. By folk heritage and mandate the spirits speak through artists. In brief, lwa live intimately with the people of Haiti. The new constitution officially recognizes both Voodoo and Roman Catholicism as religions and cites Creole and French as languages. Faith and language have extensively influenced an art that uniquely reflects its culture.

Haitian artists have won world acclaim in a mere five decades since DeWitt Peters, an American watercolorist and teacher, founded the Centre D'Art in 1944 to provide an enduring channel for Haitian artistic expression. Among the first artists to achieve fame were houngan (priest) Hector Hyppolite and his young disciple Wilson Bigaud whose "Marriage at Cana" is the most renowned mural of the Episcopal Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. Hyppolite and other houngans such as Andre Pierre painted only when the lwa dictated. For other priests like La Fortune Felix or Prosper Pierre Louis the spirit muses provided themes through dreams. Many artists draw on a cornucopia of Biblical tales, myths and the rich traditions of West Africa. Folk tales passed through generations provide tangible and frequent spirit contact. A few say they are specifically inspired and instilled with confidence for careers or isolated achievement.

Anthropologist James Leyburn cites Voodoo as the second religion of Haiti "...a true religion in the same sense Mohammedanism, Buddhism, or Christianity are all true religions...a set of beliefs and practices which claim to deal with the spiritual forces of the universe, and attempt to keep the individual in harmonious relation with them as they affect his life...." Superstition is seen as a relative concept applied to beliefs that people too wise or advanced cannot espouse. As a religion Voodoo has no formal theology, no seminaries, no congress, no scriptures. However, oral and visual traditions incorporate Dahomey, Yoruba, lbo and Kongo African pantheons. These cultural memories were carried to the New World by ancestral victims uprooted by the slave trade. Initiates (hounsi) assist the houngan in temples (houmfors) across the land. Vevers (invocational symbol drawings) outlined on earthen temple floors with flour, ash or cornmeal, summon the lwa to mount (possess) and speak through their horsemen-followers during ceremonial trances. Artistry in music, choreography, symbols, offerings and conversations with gods are part of the familiar rites.

Voodoo emerged as slave traffic increased. It was threatened by expulsion/suppression under both colonial and native rulers, matured, and was diffused. Isolation intensified in the 55 years following independence (1805-60) when there were no formal links to Catholicism after the French clergy departed. Both Emperor Faustin I (Solouque) and President-for-life Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) encouraged Voodoo by their example and support. To many, Duvalier was seen as Baron Samedi incarnate, because he wore the same somber black garb and hat of the Guede (spirit) that resembled a 19th century undertaker's costume. Baron Samedi, similarly dressed, repeatedly appears in paintings, flags and metal sculptures as the figure who controls departed spirits and zombies, often as work parties in cemeteries. Following Solouque the Church formally returned to Haiti. The Vatican excommunicated Duvalier. During the incumbency of both, Voodoo flourished and was inextricably fused with Catholicism.

Beliefs associated with Voodoo frequently appear in paintings and sculpture. Many lwa or mystères accompanied African ancestors. They are revered as family. In their power to possess and speak through people, they are capable of good or evil, gentleness and anger, mercy and revenge. Belief in efficacy of sacrifice, hedonism, cults of the dead (who may return), spiritual causes of disease or misfortune, charms and spells and in formal Catholicism are not incompatible to the predominantly illiterate peasants. The French-speaking elite also are familiar with Voodoo. An often repeated story that Haiti is 90 per cent Catholic and 100 per cent practice Voodoo appears to be accurate. Peasants feel they are members of both the State religions. Where God and the Trinity are more powerful, they seem more aloof than the ancestor-linked lwa, who are demonstrably more empathic and concerned with details of daily living. Moreover, through the centuries the lwa, who are partially independent yet show allegiance to Bon Dye (God), have become fused with Christian saints, partly because of the cultural influence of the European clergy and partly because of the assimilative syncretism of Voodoo. Voodoo is an informal, action-oriented religion created by and suited to the rural life. For the agrarian peasant it provides a spiritual connection, a vehicle for recreation and social control working through secret societies.

Courlander's anthropological studies stress that non-material, performing arts thrived because there were few resources available to the slaves. After independence, religion, music, dance, folk tales, games and proverbs all persisted, but agricultural production of coffee, cotton, cane and indigo had the highest priority. Only ironworkers who included esthetic elements in producing weapons and knives were possible exceptions. Today's smiths continue this heritage using discarded oil drums to forge animistic lwa, sea sirens and ingenious abstract designs. Vevers used as symbols to solicit visitation and possession by lwas are learned through oral and visual tradition. One may be beautiful, the next crude, but they serve their invocational purpose of summoning spirits. Some say these cabalistic drawings of hearts, ships, anchors, snakes, crosses, phallic forms, flags, stars, machetes and circles, precisely detailed on the ground, gave rise to the miracle of Haitian art that burst on the world in the mid-twentieth century.

Whatever the sources of inspiration, Haitian primitive art uses pure, bright and separate colors, flatly applied with little shadow or perspective by untutored artists using a rich heritage, known intimately by them, but surprising in its élan, range, and appeal to a world of sophisticates. The primary focus is on religious themes and Voodoo is pervasive, a fusion of the natural and supernatural at its best in narrative story telling, use of brilliant color and innovative detail, and an endless litany of spirits participating in life experiences.

The 15 muralists of the Episcopal Cathedral St. Trinite were not seen as religious artists. Only one was a member of the same church, another a protestant and the remainder Catholics and/or Voodoo believers. Two of the most famous survivors are in the current exhibition. Wilson Bigaud's "Marriage at Cana" and Prefete Duffaut's "Temptation of Christ," depicting the devil and a surreal vision of his birthplace, Jacmel, express their individuality and the uniqueness of Haitian views in a reverent, humorous and earthy manner. The people depicted are Haitian, God's all-seeing eye observes, police chase thieves, football is played, an oil drum serves as pedestal for Christ's baptism, the animals seem human as one almost hears the native music or feels a tropical breeze stir the lush vegetation. Indeed, Episcopal Bishop Alfred Voegeli took justifiable pride as the murals became world famous in the 1950s. With Peters and Selden Rodman, he had the courage and foresight to provide the setting and to encourage work, after both the Government and Catholic authorities declined to risk their Exposition Center or barren Cathedral walls with untried indigenous artistry.

The mingling of Voodoo with Catholicism can be noted in the Episcopal murals. The vitality of experience, conviction and artistic creativity seem more important than the conventions of formal religion. Some of the colors and abstractions of Haitian art in the exhibition resemble those of Matisse, a self-professed atheist who decorated the chapel walls at Vence, France. Others recall Chagall whose favorite themes of home, family, music and spirituality are akin to Voodoo concerns with daily experience. Andre Dimanche's "Damballah Virgin" is linked to Erzulie, a multi-faceted lwa that has ties to Aphrodite, Mater Dolorosa, health, and an angry Madonna. This rediscovery of African gods in the symbolism of Christian images provides syncretistic views of saints, angels, sirens, mermaids, healers, the cult of twins, spirits of the graveyard, and others who coalesce with creation myths. Lords of the water, fertility, crossroads, agriculture, war, work and nature appear regularly. These deities are involved in possession, cures, revelations, inspiration, prayers, hope, and community camaraderie.

Consider the insights and technique in sculptures, paintings, and flags by Dimanche, Liautaud, two generations of Louisjustes, the mountain painters of St. Soleil acclaimed by Andre Malraux, old masters and new flag makers such as Amena Simeon, Myrlande Constant, Eviland Lalanne, Oldof and Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph. Different styles and themes portray confidence and acute sensitivity as in Horace Pippin's Holy Mountain or Edward Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom.

Similarities to Inuit/Eskimo, Australian Aboriginal, African, European naives, surrealist, art brut, outsiders and other influences abound. One can envision with Jung, Campbell, Malraux and Van der Post a museum of man, a taproot to primordial worlds, an opportunity to view comparatively untainted naïve or tribal perspectives. Along with Haitian author Thoby-Marcelin one may view this bright legion of artists as "...products of a sun-drenched land... narrating the political or religious life of the Haitian people... work and play... dreams of night, the fantasy...of Black Africa... in which the marvelous hides with the real in perfect simplicity..."

© Brictson 2001