Review of ‘Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti’ (Field Museum, Chicago)

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A post by Peter Jordens.

Philip Potempa reviews the exhibition Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti which runs until April 26, 2015 at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois.

Very few of the more than 300 authentic Vodou objects from Haiti now on display at the Field Museum are housed behind glass or roped-off from curious onlookers. “As part of our agreement to bring this remarkable exhibit to Chicago, we were told this object should not be encased because of their meaning and symbolism,” said Janet Hong, project manager for the Vodou exhibit, a display that has been planned for years and now is a reality. “And as a result, once you walk into the first room, you can actually smell the history and mysticism associated with these unique objects.”

Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti looks beyond myths and manufactured Hollywood images. “You will see no dolls with pins stuck into them,” said Hong, who has been with the Field Museum for 12 years. “Instead, the exhibition explores the underground history and true nature of a living religion, and reveals Vodou as a vital spiritual and social force that remains an important part of daily life in Haiti.”

She said the exhibition tells the story of Vodou from the viewpoints of people who practice the religion. Through text and videos, the experts associated with these beliefs and practices, called ‘Vodouists’ express their points of view about various aspects of their symbols, rituals and spiritual beliefs. She said this authenticity is even reflected in the spelling of Vodou (pronounced vah-DOO) as the term is now used by the religion’s practitioners, scholars and even the United State Library of Congress, compared [to] the popular culture term ‘Voodoo.’

“Vodou is both a religion and a profound expression of the Haitian national experience,” said Hong, emphasizing [that] the rituals of Vodou remember the country’s triumph over slavery and honor the spirit of resistance that has sustained Haiti through centuries of hardship. There is also a distinct connection to Christianity, as evidenced by the Haitian mentions of Saint Lazarus, “patron saint of the poor,” who was “raised from the dead” by Jesus in biblical scripture.

“The exhibition demonstrates the power of human creativity,” said Alaka Wali, Field Museum’s Curator of North American Anthropology and Applied Cultural Research Director. “It goes beyond the usual stereotypes to bring us into a wonderful and deep world of spiritual beliefs and ritual practices created and maintained by Haitians during times of hardship and suffering brought on by enslavement and its consequences. We hear directly about what Vodou means from the practitioners, in their own voice.”

This exhibition was co-organized by the Canadian Museum of History and the Foundation for the Preservation, Enhancement and Production of Haitian Cultural Works, in partnership with the Ethnography Museum of Geneva Switzerland and the Tropenmuseum of the Netherlands.

Guests walk freely through room after room of eye-popping creations, including altars, vivid mixed-media sculptures, drums, sequined-covered flags and charismatic, large-scale representations of spirits called lwa. Most objects in Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti are from the renowned Marianne Lehmann Collection based in Pétionville, Haiti.

Hong said “the centrality of spirits” in Vodou practice underscores the philosophical idea that life is interconnected, with no divisions between the material and the spiritual, the living and the dead. Invoking spirits gives Vodouists a practical way to pay tribute to ancestors, and keep memories of the past alive. “We also give visitors rare chance to peek inside the workroom of a Bizango, a type of Vodou secret society,” Hong said. “This is the only instance when items are kept closed off and you must look through windows because of the power associated with the items. Visitors can hear Vodou practitioners share experiences and stories. Then, after experiencing the exhibition, the final moments include a gallery of large mirrors adorned with icons to allow everyone to reflect on his or her own viewpoints.”

The original review is at http://www.nwitimes.com/lifestyles/leisure/something-sacred-vodou-exhibit-at-field-museum-casting-its-spell/article_48acdc88-89e1-56cf-8c98-86b1030797fb.html.

The exhibition’s webpage is http://www.fieldmuseum.org/at-the-field/exhibitions/vodou-sacred-powers-haiti.

Here are two reviews by bloggers:

Christina Marie, March 18, 2015, http://www.merelymarie.com/2015/03/vodou

Robert Figueroa, April 5, 2015, http://ryfigueroa.blogspot.com/2015/04/vodou-at-field-museum.html

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