Way back in October, Holly Smith from the Field Museum contacted me to inquire about Vodou and to ask a couple questions. I responded as best I could and that was that. I did not realize at the time, that the exhibit she was asking me about was the Lehman one from Canada. I contacted her again, and we exchanged several more emails, with additional details regarding Vodou. We had tried to get to Canada to see the show there, but time had been against us. This year, for the Oungan's birthday, I decided we'd take the plunge and head to Chicago to see the exhibit. I let Holly and Janet Hong know we were coming, and they gladly signed us in to see the exhibit.
We entered the long covered entryway early Friday morning, so as to try to get into the show without a crowd. I am very glad we did - the gallery filled up quickly with folks looking to get a peek into the world of Vodou. Janet the exhibit curator and Holly were on hand to greet us as we began our journey into the gallery. Both ladies were very lovely, engaging and did a fantastic job getting the show in order. With thanks to my ever patient husband, we spent four hours going through the show, so I could read every label, watch every video (some twice) and absorb it all. It was time well spent.
The exhibit opened with a timeline of the island, beginning with the First People (the Taino and Ciboneys) and moving through the plantocracy, the revolution and into Independence. I thought the choice of using a first person narrative was a great idea -- it brought an immediacy to the words, making them sound fresh. As an independent scholar, I've read everything I can get my hands on about Haiti, its history and of course, Vodou. The timeline was a fresh take a well worn idea.
As we moved through this first gallery, the curators had placed Taino and Ciboney artifacts for us to contemplate. The Spanish had done their work so well, there is precious little left of those First People. Yet I felt the exhibit did much to show how involved they were with the Revolution. The large grinding stones, the sacred cemi stones and round ball seats were a testament to the creativity of these people. A statue of a man said to be a First People image stood over the stones, offering a hand of something to the audience. His presence lent a melancholy note to the display. Said to be gentle people, the First People actually tried to make peace with the Spanish. They repaid this kindness with brutal slavery.
As we moved into the main gallery, we encounter the four majors of the Rada pantheon - Papa Legba in his guise as San Lazaro. Papa Loko carved out of a tree and invoking his windy spirit (perfect I thought for Chicago!) and of course, the Marasa with their twinned vessels and a stunning flag to help salute them. There was also the odd placement of Azaka Mede who, though not considered a major (there was no Ayizan artifact to complete the Major quartet), is a Rada spirit, served with the Djouba nation. Other than this one oddity, I thought the arrangement worked very well. All Vodou rites open with these Lwa, so it was a fitting placement to host them at the opening of the venue.
Magic rooms or badji are always hidden - and the decision to tuck this room away, yet allow us to peek in was a beautiful designation of honor and respect. The room was a riot of color, movement, power and contrast. Thrones for the King and Queen were decorated with skulls, faces and divine symbolism. They sat opposite a quiet working altar set with a mirror, human skulls and lamps. Below the altar were powerful kanari jars, their occupants obviously initiates (their kolyes lovingly wrapped around the vessels.) These were seated at the foot of the thrones, indicating their status in the sosyete. I was quite taken by the visual nature of the items. Having seen some of these in situ in Petionville in the early 2004-2005 period, they have been lovingly cleaned, conserved and should last for generations. (I told Janet her hair would have stood on end, had she seen the condition of things in Haiti!)
These figures did not shy away from the reality of their work. The general had an amputated foot, indicating he had stood in battle and wore his wound proudly. Many figures display some kind of battle trauma from amputated limbs to missing an eye or fingers. This display of reality was unnerving for some of the people around us - they remarked on how awful it was to show this. I thought then you have no idea how terrible life really was for these people. I found the reality of the faces (most were fabric over bone), the missing limbs and facial features made these figures come to life. I am always amazed at the ignorance surrounding Haiti - despite being tied to our own independence in so many ways. Perhaps if our life was less sanitized, we'd come to discover our own awful past as well (the movie, Glory anyone?)
The figures were further unnerving for their unwavering gaze. The eyes were most often sewn in mirrors that reflected our own image back at us. The heads titled left or right, mouths pursed in thought, clamped tight or weirdly smiling. The male figures were imposing, with big limbs, bulky muscles and they held tools in militaristic fashion across their knees. But I found the female figures threatening, dangerous even. They sat with clenched fists, chins raised in defiant forms, looking down their (sometimes missing) noses at us. Some figures glared, some gawked and all of them looked as startled to see us, as we them. They sat and leaned at odd angles, as if the spirit was sitting on one hip or the other. This lent a certain animation to the figures, and gave them real energy. I felt that at any moment they would all stand up and push us all out of the gallery.
The mirrors were set around the group of figures, making them double and triple in number. I am not sure if it was intentional, but the doubling of the figures gave a certain magical intent to the figures. As if they appeared out of nowhere, more than we thought but not necessarily so - a magical move of empowerment not unlike the Bizango themselves! (Another bravo to the curators for a trick well done.)
There were approximately four mirrors that were smaller in size - like the kind you might hang over a sofa as an accent piece. But four of them were easily 8 feet in height, edged in elaborate iron work, tied pwen and black/red Bizango fringe. I believe they are called pier mirrors, as they cannot be hung, but merely laid back against the wall. They were a very popular item in Victorian homes. Not only were these mirrors gorgeous to behold, they are also powerful repositories of Haitian history.
To give you a sense of size, here's Papa Don examining one of the smaller of the large group. It featured a large Taino face with axes, hatchets and other implements of warfare on the frame. The mirror above was heavily embellished with tied pwen, double faces and serpentine elements that entwined the frame. Yet beneath the embellishments, you could still see the heavy ornate frame that held the mirror originally. Several mirrors has goat or bull horns attached, chained with heavy links of iron and pins. The mirrors were further decorated with fringe, bullion, stars, crosses, and hand painted elements that resembled veves. And nearly all the big mirrors were deeply beveled with large sections further embellished and lifted from the backgrounds. They looked heavy, imposing and majestic.
One additional thing I've not mentioned were the videos. Through out the gallery were stations where you could watch a 2-3 minute video on a particular facet of Vodou. I was heartened to hear the men and women interview repeating what I have been teaching for so long. How different the Africans were from one another. How they had to learn to live together, to create a language they could speak. The creation of Vodou as a method of worship for so many different people. The videos were short and informative, and added much to the surrounding objects in the way of information and clarity. There were also three video screens running excerpts from Maya Deren's Divine Horsemen; several specialty sessions (healing, divination, lave tet); and a film from Montreal of LaDeese DeReale's sosyete performing a Danbala Sevis. All in all, lots of good quality information and visuals.
As compelling as the mirrors and videos were, I had to continue through the gallery to see the rest of the exhibit. Excellent groupings of items lent power, imagination and energy to the viewers via the groupings and association things. I will write more in the next blog post.