Tracing the Pop Culture Zombie Myth to Haitian Folklore

Allison Conner (Hyperallergic) reviews the work of Sula Bermúdez-Silverman: “In sculptures made of sugar, salt, and glass, Sula Bermúdez-Silverman explores the colonial undertones of monster movie imagery.” Sula Bermúdez-Silverman: Sighs and Leers and Crocodile Tears continues at Murmurs Gallery (1411 Newton Street, Los Angeles) through April 10, 2021.

For her first solo exhibition last year at the California African American Museum (CAAM), the artist explained, “I started working with sugar as a material learning that my ancestors worked on sugar cane plantations in Puerto Rico. But sugar has a much larger significant history, which I think deals with the beginning of early capitalism. Both sugar and dollhouses were symbols that have changed and evolved over time.” Allison Conner writes:

While chatting with Los Angeles-based artist Sula Bermúdez-Silverman about her new solo exhibition at Murmurs Gallery, Sighs and Leers and Crocodile Tears, she mentioned the sheer number of classic horror movie posters that recycle a similar pose: a frightened or limp white woman carried in the arms of a dastardly monster. She named King Kong and Fay Wray as the prototypical cinematic example. To that you could add: Gill Man and Kay, Kharis the Mummy and Peggy, Dracula and Helen, as well as beastly creatures from B-movies like Tarantula! (1952) and The Alligator People (1959). These images, Bermúdez-Silverman explained, were created for advertising purposes, and did not always depict actual scenes from the movies. That this visual trope became a reliable shorthand for cinematic horror reveals an obsessive fascination with the monster in popular culture, a narrative casting the creature as a figure of repulsion and titillation.

The sculptures and installations included in Sighs and Leers and Crocodile Tears pull from monster movie imagery, implicitly and explicitly evoking films like White Zombie (1932) and The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954). In various areas of the airy gallery, I encountered mutilated reptilian hands, rising from the walls or mounds of salt, as if eager to pull me closer. In a nod to Candyman (1992), floor works like “Lady with a Ring” (2021) and “Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels” (2021) feature shriveled carpenter bees arranged alongside a puffer fish specimen in a glass jar and a bisected face mold. Delicate and translucent, some sculptures glow from below with light, like the Repository series, which presents crystalline dollhouses perched on a stack of pinkish bricks. At times, it felt like I was surrounded by uncanny props from forgotten movies, a purposeful effect by the artist.

The sculptures are made of only three substances: sugar, salt, and glass. With this choice, Bermúdez-Silverman twists monster lore to consider its latent connection to power and the legacies of colonialism. Although the American zombie is often cited as a metaphor for rabid consumerism and capitalism, the origins of the myth can be traced back to Haitian folklore. In Vodou tradition, a zombie is a deceased person who has been partially brought to life via a potion concocted by a bokor (sorcerer) to serve as their indentured servant. The only way to free a zombie from unending labor is to feed it salt. In the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution (which abolished slavery on the island after Africans overthrew their French colonizers), anxieties around eternal bondage and the loss of personal autonomy coalesced into this haunted figure.

“Carrefour Pietà / Be My Victim” splices a promotional image from the 1943 film I Walked With a Zombie with a version of Michaelangelo’s “Pietà” holding a Black Jesus. In the jump from Haitian folklore to American consumerism, Bermúdez-Silverman is interested in how the zombie transformed from victim to perpetrator. Her monsters go beyond narratives of othering, which she feels can inadvertently reify stereotypes. Instead, she expands definitions of the monster to explore how forces like capitalism and colonialism inflict horror on everyday people.

[Installation view, Sula Bermúdez Silverman: Sighs and Leers and Crocodile Tears at Murmurs (all images courtesy the artist and Murmurs)]

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