A new exhibition of Voodoo art from Haiti evokes the island’s heat and intensity while setting a few records straight, Mark Hudson reports in this review for London’s Telegraph.
“Energy can get very hot very fast in Haiti,” says Leah Gordon. “You’ll be at a carnival and things will suddenly burst out in a way that can feel very unnerving. But when you get to know the place, you realise these things aren’t as life-threatening as they first seem.”
Photographer, film-maker and curator, Gordon is best known for her black-and-white photographs of Haitian carnivals, which brilliantly evoke the heat and surreal intensity of these events in which the island’s slum-dwellers act out its troubled history in terrifying-looking masquerades.
Most of Gordon’s professional life has been bound up with Haiti, a Caribbean island which is often considered a byword for poverty, corruption and untrammelled desperation. From the time of its creation in a slave revolt at the end of the 18th century, Haiti, the first black republic – and the poorest country in the Western hemisphere – has been caught up in an apparently endless cycle of natural disaster, foreign invasion and chronic misgovernment.
This month, Gordon turns curator for a major exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary which casts the island in a very different light, through art inspired by a phenomenon that is widely seen as synonymous with the sickness and hopelessness of the Haitian condition: voodoo.
From effigy dolls and zombies to curses, blood sacrifice and endless drumming in the tropical night, the term voodoo – or vodou as this exhibition has it – has become a catch-all for just about any scary, Afro-Caribbean mumbo jumbo. Simultaneously it has been a source of sinister glamour for a privileged array of Western artists as diverse as Truman Capote, Andre Breton and Mick Jagger.
This exhibition, however, presents it in a more measured fashion, as a coherent religion followed by at least half of the Haitian population, an amalgam of African, Christian and native Indian beliefs that has given rise to an extraordinary iconography. We are shown magical folk paintings in which the events of Haitian history are seen in relation to voodoo deities – such as Ogun, the African god of war, and the glamorous love goddess, Erzulie Fréda – along with iron sculptures cut out of oil drums and sequinned flags used in secret rites.
“Voodoo is a set of ceremonies that bring down spirits,” says Gordon. “The spirits indicate they’re present by possessing the celebrants. An animal is sacrificed to feed the spirits, and there’s a lot of dancing and drumming that goes with that. I can’t see anything intrinsically threatening in that. And it’s a lot more entertaining than any church service I’ve been to.”
Entertaining, possibly, but challenging too, certainly for the non-initiate. Yet Gordon, a quietly determined Cumbrian, who doesn’t consider herself particularly intrepid, came to Haiti and its culture through the unlikely agency of a television programme presented by the late Jill Dando.
In 1991 she was an aspiring photographer looking for a destination that would yield compelling images, when one Sunday evening she saw an edition of the Holiday programme in which Dando visited the Dominican Republic, the Spanish-speaking country that shares an island with Haiti. “It was snowing outside,” recalls Gordon. “I was dreamily thinking, why don’t I go somewhere hot, when I heard her warning viewers not to go to Haiti by mistake: there was black magic there, dictatorships, military coups. I remember thinking, “All that – and hot weather too!”
Knowing nothing of the country beyond Steely Dan’s song Haitian Divorce, Gordon threw in her job as a van driver for a left-wing book distributor and within a month had booked herself a ticket to Haiti. In the capital Port-au-Prince she checked into the Olofson, the rackety hotel where Graham Greene set his spine-chilling 1966 novel The Comedians, and within days was immersing herself in Haitian culture.
“I didn’t have much money. But there were a couple of nice elderly New York art dealers, who took me to see Andre Pierre” – an artist and voodoo priest whose work appears in the Nottingham show. “I remember thinking, I really want to be a Haitian art expert.”
Centring on the idea of the Master of the Head – a guiding deity who determines the individual’s destiny and can be called upon for assistance – voodoo’s imagery and practices belong to a vast complex of belief stretching between Africa and the Americas, created by the comings and goings of the slave trade. The great blues singer Robert Johnson, for example, is said to have gained his talent by making a pact with the devil at a crossroads, where, in voodoo and in West African belief, the mortal and sacred realms meet. Yet voodoo has gained a somewhat separate character, even in this rich spiritual terrain, through the brutal vicissitudes of Haitian history.
A French colony from the 17th century, Haiti became rich through sugar and coffee. Yet the lot of the vast slave population was so hard the entire population had to be replenished every 20 years. Against this background, voodoo emerged as what Haitian artist Edouard Duval Carrié calls a “rebel religion”, the slaves clinging in desperation to vestiges of African belief. When they rebelled in 1791, a new rank of dangerous and unpredictable deities was created, to help them defeat their oppressors. The voodoo pantheon has gone on expanding, with artists taking inspiration from the images around them, whether it’s baroque religious art or Princess Diana, who became a model for the love goddess in the period following her death. “I’ve seen Fred Flintstone on a voodoo altar,” says Gordon.
The kind of painting on board and canvas that makes up much of the Nottingham exhibition emerged in the Forties, when Dewitt Peters, an American watercolourist and pacifist who had been sent to Haiti as a teacher in lieu of military service, opened a small arts centre, the Centre d’Art, in Port-au-Prince.
The tiny Francophile mulatto elite who dominated Haiti for much of the past two centuries disdained voodoo and the country’s African heritage as primitive. The Centre d’Art was created as a showcase for Haitian modern art, but it soon became known for so-called “naive art”, the work of untrained peasants and artisans. Driving through the town of St Marc, Peters had seen an elaborately painted door blazoned with the words “Ici la Renaissance” – Here is the Renaissance. It was the work of Hector Hyppolite, a house painter and voodoo priest, who Peters encouraged to work on board and canvas. When he gave art materials to his driver, Rigaud Benoit, he too proved a talented artist.
Whether Peters was acting as a catalyst for a new kind of Haitian art or simply creating a market for what was already there, the result was a kind of Haitian primitive renaissance, which the Surrealist leader André Breton acclaimed as genuine, lived Surrealism – as opposed to the effete, intellectual European kind – when he visited the island in 1945. International collectors and dealers began paying attention, and in 1948 New York’s Museum of Modern Art began buying Haitian art, leading to a sense of national pride in Haitian creativity – the often expressed view that every Haitian is not only an artist, but a kind of natural Surrealist, instinctively in touch with primal forces.
While the Centre d’Art artists have long since given way to new avant-gardes such as the Atis Resistanz, a group of street sculptors whose work is also seen in the exhibition, the linking factor is the way the spirit world of voodoo intertwines with real history and politics.
“In Haiti, history is told from the bottom up, beginning with the poorest people in society,” says Gordon. “People really know their history, and it’s acted out spectacularly in art, carnival and even in politics.” She describes the bizarre dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier (from 1957 to 1971), an initially well-meaning doctor who used voodoo as an instrument of terror, as “like some huge theatrical production”. “It had costumes, a setting, a narrative and characters, which drew on the lexicon of voodoo. Papa Doc dressed like Baron Samedi (the voodoo deity of death), while the Tontons Macoutes (his notorious militia) dressed as Papa Zaka, the spirit of agriculture.”
Yet Papa Doc is said to have been responsible for the deaths of some 30,000 Haitians, while rampantly looting the nation’s wealth. The fall of his son Jean-Claude, known as Baby Doc, in 1986, led to a massive backlash against voodoo and the killing of many priests. Isn’t there a danger of whitewashing voodoo, and with it many iniquities of Haiti’s past?
“When you realise that voodoo isn’t what most people think it is, you can find yourself care-bearising it too much,” says Gordon. “It is a complicated phenomenon. It’s about creating and channelling energy.” There are voodoo objects, that might almost be considered works of art, which are designed to “have agency” – as she puts it – to effect change by creating points of energy. “Maybe that’s what all art tries to do, but it’s not so clearly articulated.” And is this power, this “agency”, for good or evil? “There is no good and evil in Voodoo.”
So what about the future, as the long arm of globalisation finally reaches Haiti? “Since the 2010 earthquake a lot of things have changed,” says Gordon. “It was always thought to be impossible to do business in Haiti, but now mobile phones have arrived. Haitians are becoming consumers for the first time. They’re delighted: finally they’re joining the rest of the world. Whether that will take the edge out of the country’s creativity it’s too early to tell.”
Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou is at Nottingham Contemporary (0115 948 9750; nottinghamcontemporary.org) until Jan 6, 2013
For the original report go to http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/9621328/There-is-no-good-or-evil-in-Voodoo.html
Image:’Lwa in the Blue Bird’ (detail), an example of Voodoo art, by Prospere Pierre-Louis