Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My February Pilgrimage to Chicago: Part Two

Yesterday, I wrote about the Bizango show at the Field Museum in Chicago. Despite freezing temperatures, my intrepid husband got me to the museum and then let me go full throttle Vodou for the next 6 hours. Here's the highlights of my trip through the second gallery:

Having explored the Bizango altar, the seated group and those amazing mirrors, I turned to find a Rada set up right behind the four majors. There was a healing station, featuring a work chair, govis for elements of the ritual working and a small personal size agatwa or badji. The agatwa was well worn, and the door was open a crack, so we could peek inside at the instruments and items that were stored there.  It made me realize just how unique each one is to the individual practitioner, yet similar in presentation. Plates, dolls, and candles lined the dark interior. Next to it was the chair used for healing. A powerhouse object, it featured tied pwen (boutey), candles and the ubiquitous Vodou symbols.

There were many Bizango elements featured in this gallery - the most haunting were the Bizango army figures. I swear they looked like they could rise up at any moment and attack.  Even more interesting was the camera. I am a pro-photographer. I can get a shot hanging by my toes. But for the love of God, I couldn't get the camera to hold still for very long in this gallery. And that's because the
figures were moving. It was not noticeable to the human eye. But the camera on the phone kept refocusing, moving the field left and right and shutting off. It was only when I politely asked for them (the figures) to stop it, did the lens focus and I got a clear shot. Like I said, lots of palatable power in this room.  The figures were labeled as generals, angels and -- executioners. Gives you a sense of what life was like back in the pre-revolutionary days. That a role such as executioner took front and center stage made me feel very angry for the Africans and upset over their treatment. Such a violent history for such a beautiful place. Like I said to the curators, the didactic nature of Haiti is both its salvation and its destruction.

In and amongst the military figures were ones labels as angelic warriors. These featured bat like wings, and were said to have been sent overhead, to report back on what was happening in the field. Extraordinary, thaumaturgical beings who could come and go at will.  This alone spoke of the extraordinary powers that some of the Africans had, and of course, the way it was employed to defeat the French. This was no small act of ritual either. The beings called up were ancient and readily answered to the sorcerer. I still have Papa Domo's book on European grimoires -- and I now take a very different view of it, given this show's inclusion of such creatures.  One of these figures was very unsettling to me - he was in the back, and yet I could "feel" his eyes on me the entire time I was at this end of the exhibit. He was not labeled, had no wings but he felt very real and I felt very watched by him. This is the shot I tried to get of him - he was pretty cagey as well:

His shot is out of focus because he kept moving - or at least, the lens of the camera kept shifting fields, unable to find a steady place to settle on.  Trying to get this shot made me realized what was happening.  In the end, I just gave into the event and hoped I could find resolution with the figures.

I was quite taken by this fellow.  He had a military helmet on, but you could clearly see the skull's outlines beneath the cloth skin.  His missing nose  had a mirror as a replacement, which protruded out giving his face almost nature proportions. His face was unique among the many figures. His mouth was gaping open, as if in surprise at what he was seeing. He was slightly hunched forward, arms held loosely at his sides, with a lean to the left side. His stance along with the face gave me the impression of a challenger, some one who was testing the opposition. Most of the figures in this group were leaning back slightly, in parade rest stand. Not this fellow -- he was ready to leap at a moment's notice. And where ever I stood at this end of the gallery, he was watching me. Like I said, unsettling to say the least! I can imagine coming upon some of these figures in the woods at night - they would certainly give me pause before moving on!

These figures are life size - I can imagine them being placed outdoors to guard a temple at night.  You would mistake any one of them for a real person, so realistic and proportionally threatening they are. We pressed on further into the gallery to view the other items.

There were four display cases following the army: each one held a gorgeous statue, from 18' to 24" tall. There was a female figure with a cow's head and bell, a horseheaded man, and two Taino figures in full regalia. The horseheaded guy reminded me of Gamgina, the goetic spirit said to rule all the souls who have drowned. A interesting intersection of beliefs and practices, given the many Africans who died on the Middle Passage.

 It was also interesting to see the Taino statues. So little remains of these people, any representation is worth studying and thinking about. It is said that the maroon Africans joined the remaining Tainos in the mountains and that together, they plotted the demise of the plantation masters. Certainly the Tainos taught the Africans how to survive in the mountains - what plants to eat, what could grow, where there was water.  They are an important part of the island's history and deserved a more thorough study.

This end of the exhibit was populated by full figure representations of the Lwa. I have to say here that the size of the artifacts took me by surprise. There were no small, dainty items. Most were large, life size or even oversize.  The Erzulie doll that has been reprinted many times, over is 3 feet tall.  The Danbala was my height (5'5") and the Sen Jak canari jar was easily 28-30" tall.  Nothing small enough to tuck under a shirt or arm. Which remembering how Marianne Lehman came to have these things is even more impressive.  How did the priest hide a full scale Danbala statue during transportation? Knowing that most statues are concrete or stone makes their journey even more impressive. I have been studying this collection for nearly 8 years, and yet I came away with a stunning view of all the pieces, due to their size and presence in this exhibit.

Even the flags at this end were huge - this flag is for Sen Nikolis and was 6 or 7 feet in length, 3 feet wide, and the entire piece was done in gold seed beads with padding to make the image three dimensional. Every flag in the collection had fringe on it, marking it as a ceremonial flag. We here at Sosyete du Marche have two such flags.  They are big (3 x 4 ft), covered in minute seed and sequins, and edged in satin fringe.  True works of art, I found them on eBay. Someone who owns a costume shop was selling them for a pittance - they obviously did not know what they had. Their loss is our gain!

The last grouping of Bizango figures was the really active one. I had to lean against the wall to study them -- the energy made me both dizzy and light headed. This collection was the most brutish in the exhibit. These figures had seen war - they were amputated, tied down, heavily embellished with mirrors and details.  The Erzulie Mapyang sat in the middle, heavily roped to her seat. She stared balefully at me, her one over sized-breast hanging out, displayed with contempt for all to see. Many were labeled Executioner, General and Warrior.  Small zin pots were topped with one armed, one eyed spirits; some held implements of war like heavy clubs while others displayed their magical pwen and wanga. And this group just would not sit still for me. I must have shot 25 images to get this one, and even its not that clear! On the opposite side of the gallery, in contrast to the war-like visages and heavily armed Bizango figures, was a serenely set Rada altar. A delightful comparison of cool to hot!

Styled with appropriate tiers, offerings of perfume and water, plates of pierre stones and govi large and small, it was the perfect compliment to the raging figures opposite it. Janet had told me they thought about making a space for offerings, but decided not to go forward with that idea.  I thought they might have made a space on the floor for mange sec (dry offerings) -- I told her about the Legba badji we brought to Between the Worlds, and how after we moved the table, we found all these offerings -- candy, flowers, tobacco, soap and money. I think it would have worked here too, but caring for the offerings would have proven to be a task that they did have enough folks to handle. Perhaps, the spirits will find a way for them!

At this end of the gallery were additional Rada elements - a lovely sculpture of LaSiren, and a host of Rada Drums. The Mama, Segon and Boule looked well played and were displayed with a large amphora decorated in magical veves and serpents.  There was also an Assoto drum - the holiest drum that is played in a Vodou ceremony. Gathered together, they informed the viewer of the connection between Mama Siren's waters of return and the job a drum holds in service: to create the water road back to Ginen. Again, not sure if this was the intent, but it worked very well for me.

I re-visited all the videos one last time, just to catch any nuances I might have missed going through the first time. And again, I was impressed by the content. Although very relevant to me as a servitor, I think they also helped the non-practitioner get a better handle on how Vodou works and is served by the faithful.

All in all, I felt it was very good show, well worth my time and effort to fly out to see it. I give thanks to Janet and Holly for being such lovely hosts. And I poured water for the Lwa and Spirits of the Bizango. They have traveled further than their predecessors ever dreamed, but they have touched more people and places that their fore bearers intended. Or maybe that was the intent all along. They did not seem surprised to be in that place -- but then I have found the Haitian people to be the most erudite folks on the planet. And I give thanks to BonDye for having a small role to play in this exhibit.

Janet told me she thought the show was going to Boston after April. I hope so - I will make the trek to Boston as well. This time, I will leave the camera home and just come to sit and visit with them. They have much to say, if you take the time to listen to them. And I will bring an offering next time - something they can share and remember me by. I feel as if I left old friends behind. Next time, I'll arrive sooner and stay longer.

Ashe. Amen. Ayibobo.

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