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8411: Voodoo Exhibition Brochure (fwd)
Spirits in Haitian Art
San Diego Museum of Man May 2001 — February 2002 R.C.
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
1947 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
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
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
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
Whatever the sources of inspiration, Haitian primitive art uses pure,
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
© Brictson 2001
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Christensen, Eleanor Ingalls. The Art of Haiti. Barnes and Co. 1975.
Cosentino, Donald. Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. UCLA Fowler Museum of
Cultural History. Los Angeles, 1995.
Courlander, Harold. The Drum and the Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian
University of California, 1960.
Dayan, Joan. Haiti, History, and the Gods. University of California,
Danticat, Edwidge and Demme, Jonathan, et al. Island on Fire: Passionate
Visions of Haiti from the Collection of Jonathan Demme. Kaliko Press, New
Farmer, Paul. The Uses of Haiti. Common Courage Press, 1994.
Foubert, Alain. Forgerons du Vodou: Voodoo Blacksmiths.
Cidihca-Deschamps-Ulys Editions, 1990.
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Girouard, Tina. Sequin Artists of Haiti, Second Edition. Haiti Arts,
Grandjean, Michele. Artistes En Haiti: Cent Parmi D'Autres. Art et Coeur.
Hurbon, Laennec.Voodoo: Search for the Spirit. Abrams, 1995.
Heinl, Nancy and Robert. Written in Blood. Houghton Mifflin, 1978.
Revised and expanded by Michael Heinl. U. Press of America, 1996.
Jurgensen, Andreas and Orht, Karsten. Bilder Fra Haiti–Images from Haiti:
Jorgen Leth's Collection. Kunsthallen Brandts Kladefabrik, Denmark, 1999.
Leyburn, James. The Haitian People. (Revised edition). Yale University
McAlister, Elizabeth and Yih, Y.M. David. Angels in the Mirror: Vodou
of Haiti. Elipsis Arts, 1997.
Nicholls, David. From Dessalines to Duvalier, Third Edition. Macmillan,
Polk, Patrick. Haitian Vodou Flags. University Press of Mississippi,
Metraux, Alfred. Voodoo In Haiti. Schocken Books, 1939, 1972.
Rodman, Selden. Where Art Is Joy. Ruggles de Latour, 1988.
Thomson, Ian. Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti. Hutchinson, 1992.
Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American
Art and Philosophy. Random House, 1983.
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Retretti Oy Ltd. Punkaharju, Finland, 1998.
Note. Despite efforts in Haiti, at the Universities of Indiana, Kansas,
and UCLA, there is no standard orthography for Haitian Creole. At least
ten different spellings of “Voodoo”
exist. This text uses the version of the U.S. Library of Congress Index,
the Oxford English Dictionary, and the New York Times Manual of Style and
Usage, the form that also appears in popular media and films.
San Diego Museum of Man
1350 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, California, 92101, 619-239-2001
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