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The exhibit consists of 300 ceremonial objects culled from the 2,000-piece Lehmann Collection, now held by the Foundation for the Preservation, Enhancement and Production of Haitian Cultural Works in Pétion-Ville, Haiti. The curators, Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique and Mauro Peressini, have written all the explainer text in the first-person plural, as though the vodouists of Haiti are explaining their religion directly to you. It could come off as condescending if their intended audience were familiar with vodou and its rituals, but, considering all the misconceptions that have sprung up about vodou (starting with the thing about the cloth dolls), that's pretty unlikely.
"On the 14th of August, 1791, a [vodou] ceremony initiated the [Haitian] revolution," says Beauvoir-Dominique, a professor of anthropology at the State University of Haiti and also a practicing vodou priestess. "It was in Crocodile Woods, and there were representatives of all the major groups. There was thunder. They prepared to fight for a long time. They killed a pig and swore to be free. A week later, there was a fire and the colony was destroyed. It was the start of the war."
Haitian independence was declared on January 1, 1804. August 14 is still a major vodou festival. But soon after independence, Catholicism was declared the official state religion, and vodouists went underground, forming secret societies in order to avoid persecution. (The exhibit contains a replica of a badji, a secret society workroom.) In 1941, President Èlie Lescot instituted an antisuperstition campaign that required vodouists to officially renounce their religion in favor of Catholicism. (The vodouists outwitted the government by beginning their oath with the word Zomangay, or "I promise," which also happens to be the name of a vodou spirit, or lwa.) President Jean-Bertrand Aristede officially recognized vodou as a state religion in 2003, but vodouists still feel like outsiders, and secret societies still exist.
Vodou, though, is integral to Haitian society. "Vodou is generally a social activity," says Beauvoir-Dominique. "It's important to get together, to sing and dance and drink libations and eat and find communion. Some ceremonies last for a week. Different divinities are honored. There's a procedure, the 'ruling.' There are healings, physical, mental, and social. There's joking, passing of history. We tell stories. It's how society occurs. We look toward the future and bring about change."
The exhibit contains video footage of several vodou ceremonies (some shot by Beauvoir-Dominique), including a healing and a funeral. Vodouists consider death an occasion for celebration because it's not the end of anything, just the passage into another realm of existence. "The spirits of death are very sexual," says Beauvoir-Dominique. "There are a lot of pelvic movements. They drink hot peppers, bathe all over in hot peppers, and smoke lots of cigarettes."
Most of all though, Beauvoir-Dominique says, vodou is about restoring balance to the world. "Every day is sacred," she says. "It's very holistic. Everything is one. It's about the unity of the universe. Man is not apart from nature."