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7917: AP FWD - Woman Works to Preserve Vodou (fwd)
Woman Works to Preserve 'Voudou'
Updated 12:03 PM ET May 16, 2001
By MICHAEL NORTON, Associated Press Writer
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - When Marianne Lehmann came to Haiti nearly 50
years ago, she never dreamed she would end up sharing her house with the
goddess of love, the spirit of war and the devil himself.
But today her home is filled with more than 2,000 sacred objects from the
country's Voudou faith that she hopes to save from ignorance
"Vodou is the soul of the people," says Lehmann, a 64-year-old retired Swiss
Lehmann prefers to use the Creole spelling for the faith, agreeing with
Haitians that what's known elsewhere as "voodoo" - with its association with
black magic - doesn't represent the true beliefs. The religion, rooted in
Africa, helped unify bands of African slaves who fought the French before
independence in 1804.
Most of Lehmann's dust-covered collection is housed in her small suburban
home. Many of the pieces - which include drums, rattles and sequin-clad dolls
dressed like Erzulie, the goddess of love - have been used in Vodou
With the help of UNESCO, she is trying to find a museum that will protect and
preserve the collection, preferably in Haiti since the objects are a core
part of the Caribbean country's culture.
"The collection is stupendous. It enriches the patrimony of mankind, and
should be protected," says Bernard Hadjadj, director of the United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Haiti.
For 2 1/2 years, Hadjadj, a French citizen, has been trying to find funds to
photograph and index the collection. UNESCO has contributed $20,000, but
Hadjadj says another $30,000 is needed to publish a catalog, which could help
jump-start a fund-raising campaign for a future museum.
The Haitian government, facing more pressing problems such as widespread
poverty and a weakened infrastructure, has not responded to a call for funds.
"Our government has been strapped for funds, and, with political instability,
cultural projects have been left by the wayside," says Jean-Claude Bajeux, a
former culture minister.
But money isn't the only thing standing in Lehmann's way in preserving sacred
In the 1940s, the Catholic Church waged a campaign against Vodou, branding it
as nothing more than superstition. Vodou priests were persecuted, their
temples torched and objects thrown into the bonfire.
After that, the religion - now practiced by two-thirds of Haitians and
sanctioned in the country's constitution - was the subject of numerous books
and films that sensationalized it as a kind of black magic that relied upon
animal sacrifices to summon zombies and evil spirits.
As a result, much of Vodou's sacred art was shunned, while mainstream Haitian
art - influenced by Vodou - flourished.
"The art is pretty extreme for foreigners," says Don Cosentino, a professor
of world arts and cultures at the University of California at Los Angeles,
and a co-curator of the "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou," a traveling exhibit
of sacred Vodou art.
"Some of the pieces really makes sense only in a Haitian sense," he says in a
telephone interview. "A crucified doll, for example, may not give out the
same vibe in America as it would in Haiti. What people think of the religion,
they will also think of the art."
Cosentino, who used seven of Lehmann's pieces in his exhibit, says she has
one of the largest sacred Vodou art collections in the world.
"The irony is they are rotting in the place that she is forced to keep them,"
Lehmann came to Haiti in 1957, had four children and was divorced from her
Haitian husband. For nearly two decades, every spare penny of her meager
earnings has gone into the collection, which has overflowed to an adjacent
concrete home, and even a neighbor's house.
She bought her first sacred object 18 years ago. Like many Vodou objects, it
had been buried during the campaign in the 1940s.
With three horns on his head and a pipe hanging from his mouth, the object
was a small statue of Papa Bossu, a warrior god, one of the hundreds of
spirits that fill the Vodou pantheon.
"I felt an electric shock," she says. "I was completely subjugated,
Similar to Vodou practiced in Benin, Candomble in Brazil and Santeria in
Cuba, Haitian Vodou honors a pantheon of spirits, or "loas." And, like
Christianity, it recognizes both good and evil.
Lehmann can't estimate the collection's monetary value, but the seven pieces
that were loaned for the Vodou exhibit were insured for $42,000. She says
she's not interested in selling any of the objects.
"The question is not the worth of individual objects. The totality is
invaluable. It is the Haitian heritage."