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Art Facts: voodoo's strange brew of clashing cultures

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To most people, Haitian voodoo connotes such nefarious mysteries as stalking zombies, pin-punctured fingernail-encrusted dolls, and the drinking of chicken blood. Unfortunately, the spiritual underpinnings of this complex, centuries-old religion have been supplanted by a popular association with superstition and witchcraft that obscures the facts: voodoo is an amalgam of African religions, Roman Catholicism, Caribbean Indian beliefs, and a dash of Masonic iconography. It evolved in Haiti, beginning in the early 16th century, when the slave trade became active. The slaves developed a belief system melding disparate elements from their African past with their new surroundings. Voodoo is currently practiced by a hefty percentage of the country's population (who frequently deny their adherence). A clause in the new, proposed Haitian constitution would make it both legal and officially recognized. The ritual objects used during voodoo ceremonies are among the most vibrant and beautiful "primitive" artworks created for religious purposes, like the heavily beaded and sequined bottles and flags that are used to evoke voodoo deities. Still, relatively few people outside Haiti have seen these strange, glittering items.

An exhibit, "Spirit and Image: The Art of Voodoo," opens today with a dedication ceremony at the School of the Art Institute's gallery. It includes several hundred voodoo objects, from flags and bottles to rattles and drums, and was curated by two of the school's staff members, both of whom have an active interest in things Haitian and voodooesque. Collections as far-flung as New York and California have been tapped to round out the unusual show. Two typical voodoo altars have been installed, incorporating a variety of objects, offerings, and rows of colorful chromolithographs of Catholic saints that are analogous to certain voodoo deities (or "loas"). If it all sounds strange, just consider the context in which voodoo developed.

"These objects are examples of how cultures try to make sense of each other when they're forced together cataclysmically," explains curator Marilyn Houlberg, a trained artist, anthropologist, and art historian who teaches an impressive range of courses at the school. "You have to remember that Africans from all over the continent found themselves on a tiny Indian island, first with Spanish overlords, then with French ones, and with the Catholic church dominating it all . . . Imagine the reverse, if a bunch of the French 17th-century powdered-wig set suddenly found themselves plopped down in an African jungle. The results would be equally intriguing."

Curator Park Chambers, chairman of the school's fiber department, has a less anthropological and more visually oriented approach to voodoo art. "You have to view the objects in the context of folk art, or eccentric art," he says. "These are objects that communicate specific things, using specific images and colors reserved for individual loas. They're all conceived by authentic voodoo priests, but generally executed by members of the temple."

Voodoo, like any other religion, deals with such confusing imponderables as birth, death, love, and regeneration. For instance, several beaded flags on display are used to evoke Baron Samedi, lord of the cemetery, who's depicted either as a skeleton or a top-hatted undertaker. His colors are black and mauve, and one of the two altars in the show will be devoted exclusively to him. "We're lucky to have so many fine objects pertaining to Baron Samedi," Houlberg points out, "several flags, plus a number of wrought-iron crosses that are associated with him. He's usually accompanied by images of coffins, pickaxes, and skulls and crossbones that were also French Masonic symbols. But Baron Samedi isn't necessarily a 'bad' or violent loa, although many voodoo spirits have a positive and negative side. He's generally used as a communicator with the dead."

Other deities represented by flags have less morbid overtones, like Erzulie, a female spirit of beauty and love, seduction, and fertility. Her symbol is a heart and she is sometimes associated with the Virgin Mary. "The analogy of Christian saints with voodoo deities was generated when Haitian slaves recognized aspects of their own African gods in certain Catholic images," says Houlberg. "For instance, Damballah, the west African rainbow/python deity, became associated with Saint Patrick because he was shown with a staff, driving the snakes out of Ireland. Another example is Ogoun Feraille, a warrior god who took on the figure of Saint James the Elder, because he was always depicted brandishing a sword."

Chambers hopes the exhibition will dispel some of the undeserved notoriety voodoo has incurred over the centuries. "I hate the Hollywood aspect of portraying voodoo as dark and vindictive," he explains. "It's not that way at all -- its just another spiritual point of view, with some fantastic visual objects that will give viewers the chance to judge voodoo themselves."

And as for those infernal, much-maligned dolls -- there will be about 20 on display, but not to worry. "They're used primarily to communicate with ancestors, to act as messengers for the believer," Houlberg maintains. "They can be both positive and negative, but in my 20 years of research, I have never seen, heard, or read anything about sticking pins in them!"

"Spirit and Image: The Art of Voodoo" will be on display April 17 through May 9, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbus Drive at Jackson. Gallery hours are 8:30 AM-4:30 PM Monday through Saturday, but till 7:45 Tuesday, and noon to 5 PM Sunday. There will be an opening dedication ceremony with voodoo priests tonight, 4:30 to 6. Marilyn Houlberg will present a free slide lecture, "Aiye Bobo: The Ritual Arts of Voodoo," on Tuesday, April 21, at 6 PM in the auditorium of the school. The Film Center of the school will feature the film series "African Mysticism, New World Style," April 17 through 26. Admission to the exhibit is free; for more information call 443-3710.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Tropea, Alex Kovacs.

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