A little while ago I visited Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum for the Vodou: Art and Mysticism from Haiti exhibition. I didn’t know a great deal about Voodoo (or Vodou, as it is known in Haiti) and, like a lot of people, had a fairly one-dimensional and clichéd idea fuelled by the misrepresentations and sensationalism of Hollywood and its ilk. Although my knowledge is undoubtedly still hazy I now understand that it has its origins in the displacement, fragmentation and violence of the African slave trade. Many different cultures and ethnicities were uprooted from Africa (in this instance mainly from Western and Central Africa) and forcibly transported to the island then called Hispaniola (now Haiti & the Dominican Republic). Under slavery African culture and religion was brutally suppressed (as was that of the island’s indigenous population, the Taíno), and on the plantations people were routinely worked to death.
Over time people pooled their disparate religious knowledge to form a new unified religion which, by a process of syncretism, combined (and morphed) the spirits and beliefs of many different African cultures, of Taíno culture, and along the way incorporated elements of Roman Catholicism. (Initially the slaves were obliged to disguise their lwa – spirits in the vodou pantheon – as Roman Catholic saints because their ‘pagan’ religion was forbidden… and some of these saints stuck).
Of course religion has always been, among other things, a way of seeking solace or refuge and has provided many peoples with a coping mechanism in times of struggle and adversity, but I was struck by what a crucial role Vodou played in the lives of the oppressed, in the first slave uprisings, and in eventually achieving independence (in 1804). During the 18th Century Vodou societies played an important part in the uprising of the slaves against the French, imbuing people with the strength to pursue (and fight for) their freedom, and the Bizango ‘secret society’ was one of the most important in this struggle.
The exhibition consists of approximately 250 artefacts and works of art drawn from the collection of Swiss-born, long-time Haitian resident Marianne Lehman and includes some very beautiful embroidered & sequinned flags, clay and carved wooden sculptures representing various lwa (two pictured above), a fascinating array of pake (packages of herbs and other materials wrapped in cloth, stitched or bound with ribbons, usually associated with cleansing and healing powers), and an extremely compelling army of life-size Bizango warrior figures.
These figures represent the powers, and in some cases the spirits, of the Bizango freedom fighters. They are sewn in predominantly red and black cloth and carry the traces of wounds, as serially inflicted upon the slaves; ropes and chains are symbolic of the bonds of slavery but also restrain the terrifying fighting powers that are contained within the figures (which should only be unleashed with purpose and care!); the heads are real human skulls covered in cloth; pieces of mirror sewn into the eyes and on to the figures’ garments protect against harm & evil but also refer to the spirit world. These smoky mirrors, oxidised over time, reflect mysteriously and certainly contribute to a powerful sense of being in the presence of some sort of gateway between worlds.
Standing ‘alone’ in the dark amidst this army was a deeply moving, if unsettling, experience. If you’re in Amsterdam I would highly recommend a visit to this exhibition, on until 10 May at the Tropenmuseum. If you miss it in Amsterdam there’s plenty of opportunity to catch up with it: after May the exhibition moves on to the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, in 2010 it goes to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin and finally in 2011 to the Űberseemuseum in Bremen. At the end of 2011 it returns to Haiti, where it will be given a permanent place in a new, planned museum.