Vodou Art, religion and culture combine in the Haitian religion, as a vivid BMA show demonstrates.

June 14, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,sun art critic

Vodou isn't solely a religion or an art or a culture. It's all three and more: a mixture of African religion, Catholicism, Freemasonry and other influences expressed in art, dramatic ritual and culture in its native Haiti.

And it has been misrepresented by Hollywood's "voodoo," with its images of pins stuck in dolls or walking-dead zombies. "Vodou is a totalizing kind of experience," says Fred Lamp, the BMA's curator of the arts of Africa, Asia, the Amer-icas and Oceania. "It's a rich, full, abundant extravaganza of color, form, sounds and ideas from many sources."

"I think of it as a way of life," says Donald J. Cosentino, curator of the 500-object exhibit "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou," opening at the Baltimore Museum of Art today. "Vodou is what happened to African religion under the circumstances of Haitian history."

Its eclectic nature may best be expressed in the crowded Vodou altar, three of which are in the show. Assembled on an altar's several levels may be everything from candles and crucifixes to bead-covered bottles, gourds, cups, rattles, pictures of political figures, statuettes of saints, perfume vials, Masonic insignia, clocks, even Christmas-tree ornaments.

Vodou's roots are in African religions, brought to Haiti by Africans imported as slaves. They were primarily of the Fon, Kongo, Yoruba and Igbo peoples of Dahomey (now Benin), Zaire, Angola and Nigeria.

In Vodou religion there is a supreme being known as Bondye, approached through hundreds or thousands of lesser gods or spirits known as lwa. These are divided into three groups: the Rada, or cool spirits, whose color is blue; the Petwo, or fiery spirits, whose color is red; and the Bizango, spirits of death and procreation, whose colors are dark shades such as black and purple.

Nothing in Vodou (pronounced voh-doo) is that simple, however. Subgroups of spirits or even individual spirits may belong to one or more groups. The principal feminine spirit, Ezili, has two components: Ezili Danto, the Petwo mother-warrior, and Ezili Freda, the Rada spirit of love.

Vodou has no written liturgy or clerical hierarchy such as pope and bishops, so it is constantly changing, assembling and reassembling itself. The very idea of assemblage is a Vodou guiding principal, inherited from the Fon, and explains the complexity of Vodou altars and the fact that they may combine objects generations old with ones added yesterday.

It also helps to explain the assimilating nature of Vodou. Forced to become Catholics by their white masters, the African-descended slaves combined Catholicism and African beliefs, equating saints with spirits - Ezili with the Virgin Mary, for instance.

In the process, some metamorphosis took place. "Probably the classic example is the picture of Saint Patrick," says Cosentino, "an old gentleman in bishop's robes, driving snakes out of Ireland. But what the Haitians glom onto is the snakes." So St. Patrick is identified with Danbala, the snake deity.

"Instead of driving the snakes out, he is championing them," says Cosentino. "Also Danbala is the oldest of the gods, so St. Patrick's beard works wonderfully. The whole thing flows together."

In similar ways, Vodou assimilated the rituals and symbols of Freemasonry, aspects of Taino (Haitian Native American) ground paintings, elements of the Italian theater style known as commedia dell'arte and other influences.

In the 1790s the Haitian slaves staged a revolt against their white masters, and achieved independence in 1804. Both Cosentino and Lamp think Vodou helped the revolution triumph, for it provided a cohesive system of beliefs and an organized social structure. "Every village, every section of the city was organized around the societies, which is what the parishes are called," says Cosentino, "and you could count on the organization to get men into the field."

The Haitian revolution was unique. "No other nation in the history of the world was ever born out of a successful slave revolt," says Cosentino.

For that very reason, Cosentino says, Vodou has been distorted and demonized in white-dominated America, both during slave times and later by Hollywood fictions. "Haitians were associated with demon worship, savagery, painted as a people who ought not to be considered eligible for freedom," says Cosentino. The stereotypes are thus rooted in American, not Haitian, history. "And they are all the more powerful for that," Cosentino says.

It was partly to counter such stereotypes that Cosentino, professor of African and diaspora literature and folk art at the University of California at Los Angeles, embarked on the nine-year effort that culminated in "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou." It opened at UCLA in 1995 and has traveled since.

The show's organization involved priests, priestesses and other practitioners in an effort to create an authentic interpretation.

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