To understand Haiti is to understand Vodou -- a religion, a national memory bank and a way of grappling with current social problems, all wrapped up into one.
"The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou," now at the American Museum of Natural History, is an explanation of Vodou in the form of a celebration that culminates in a recreated Vodou temple, or "ounfò," with video footage of an actual "seremoni." Vodou has often been distorted in American "zombie" films and in the press, but there is no room for misinterpretation when you can see a ritual in action.
This vivid exhibition begins with a brief introduction to Haiti's proud but bloody history, conveyed by a series of brilliantly colored paintings by self-taught Haitian artists. They range from Haiti's first masters in the '40s, like Hector Hyppolite, to contemporary assemblage artist Pierre Barra. The Vodou divinities, their attributes and associated objects are the focus here, along with the many types of instruments used to get in touch with the spirits.
The most well-known of these spiritual objects are sequined flags, most bearing the name of a deity with his or her abstract sign, or "vèvè," and surrounded by a decorative border. One unforgettable shimmering passageway is devoted solely to the display of 40 flags, or "drapo." They range in color from the pinks and whites preferred by the Ezili Freda, the "lwa" or deity of love, to the purples and blacks of Bawon Samdi, trickster god of the dead and regeneration.
The smaller items like painted calabashes, small beaded and bound bundles containing powerful medicines that act like charms ("pakèt kongo"), rattles, bells, and wrapped ceramic bowls are also visually alluring and only slightly less spectacular than the flags.
The use of beads and sequins in Haitian art is not solely decorative, by the way. Rather, it refers to the "flash of the spirit," in the words of folklorist Robert Farris Thompson.
The roots of Vodou are as diverse and mixed as the people of Haiti. This fact underscores the "bricolage" nature of the entire culture. Cultural memories of black Africa from Fon/Yoruba and Kongo peoples, parts of Roman Catholicism, Freemasonry and other European spiritist traditions, French dance and military traditions, possible Amerindian survivals, and American culture and commerce swirl in a melange that is constantly being reworked theatrically in Vodou temples scattered throughout the country. Because Haiti is 65-70 percent illiterate with most citizens living in poverty or close to it, its cultural glue comes not from books but from the physically shared rituals and well-developed symbols of Vodou.
In the most exciting part of the exhibition, the individual ritual elements are reintegrated into a reconstructed "ounfò" with painted walls and complete with manikins dressed for a ceremony and other ritual accoutrements. Seated on small chairs scattered around the "poto mitan," or central pole by which the gods enter the main area of a temple, the visitor may feel the atmosphere getting "hotter" with two video screens projecting parts of actual rites recorded in Haiti. There is little chance of anyone going into a trance or even dancing, however, with museum guards hovering nearby.
As in a real Vodou temple, altars adjacent to the main room are thronged with goods to please the spirits. Here, three separate altars to the different "nanchions" of "lwa," or gods, are based on altars made by Vodou priests, or "oungans," in Haiti. One is to the Rada, or "cool" deities (mostly of Dahomey origin and associated with Catholic saints), another to the Petwo/Kongo, or "hot" deities (developed from Kongo traditions and slavery), and the last to the "lwa" of the secret Bizongo society, dedicated to justice through a focus on death and regeneration with funerary and sexual images in abundance.
All the altars are as multifarious and culturally layered as the "ounfò" itself. The hypnotically seductive yet eerie vibes given off by the Bizongo altar, for example, result from the interplay of masses of material: a cross with chains mounted above a grave with candles on the floor, another cross with a skull wearing a battered derby set on top of the altar, carved and painted phallus-topped canes, chromolithographs of various saints, a black plastic Darth Vader, a pottery jug painted with abstract symbols, a glass bottle with a doll inside, sequined bottles, liquor bottles, flags, several suspended and tied rocking chairs holding fabric containers, a suspended figure of St. James on horseback swathed in red fabric, and much, much more. Contemporary accumulation art pales by comparison.
"The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou" is a dramatic accumulation itself, with more than 500 objects, but it's so well paced and endlessly beautiful that you may never realize its daunting scale. The show was organized for the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at UCLA by Donald J. Cosentino, professor of African and Caribbean folklore and chair of the folklore and mythology program at UCLA, and Marilyn Houlberg, professor of art and anthropology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It has been circulating for two years, and New York is its last stop. Professor Cosentino has edited the equally wonderful 442-page catalogue.
One section of the show is devoted to five important artists whose work was inspired by Vodou. One of these is George Liautaud, a blacksmith/sculptor, who created both crosses and freestanding representations of the spirits and of spirit possession. His Danbala Engulfing a Servitor, something that would occur during a trance in a "seremoni," is one of his most haunting works.
Randall Morris, co-owner of the Cavin-Morris Gallery in SoHo, offers a personal appreciation of the man and his work in the "Sacred Arts" catalogue. Cavin-Morris is currently displaying several works by Liautaud as well as a group of classic to contemporary Haitian paintings to complement the show uptown. All are for sale. They come from the collection of long-time Haitian art collector Jonathan Demme, the famous film director (Silence of the Lambs, Beloved), who is pruning his huge art holdings.
Among the paintings, an impressive tempest by Edgar Jean-Baptist is similar to one on the cover of the catalogue for Demme's collection when it was shown at the Equitable Center last year. Charles Anatole's multi-figure composition of a sugar cane distillery, a quietly complex oil, and Andre Pierre's animated Sobo Bade Mambo of Rada gods at a ceremony are both knockouts.
"The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou," Oct. 10, 1998-Jan. 3, 1999, at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, N.Y. 10024.
"Tenacity and Culture: Haitian Art from the Collection of Jonathan Demme," Oct. 22-Nov. 28, 1998, at Cavin-Morris Gallery, 560 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.