From Haiti, colorful, altar-native art Review: Vodou exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art catches glimpses of people's lives, everyday and Sunday.

June 17, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The imperfect but formidable exhibit "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou" at the Baltimore Museum of Art comes along at the right time. The world is ready for it.

Vodou, the Haitian combination of art, religion and culture, stems from many sources including African religions, Catholicism and Haitian history. And Vodou finds its quintessential expression in the altar, an assemblage of everything from expertly made flags and pictures of saints to whiskey bottles and Christmas tree lights.

A half century ago, when fine art was thought the exclusive province of an intellectual elite, the Vodou altar might have been viewed as an uneasy marriage of craftsmanship and schlock. But in a world where museums collect Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans, it would be hypocrisy to scoff at an altar adorned with items of popular culture such as a Dove soap bar and a box of Cashmere Bouquet powder.

The advent of multi-culturalism has shown that art is not the exclusive province of Euro-American elitism, and that there is no single center of the art world.

And the widening acceptance of outsider or visionary art has convinced a growing audience that self-taught artists can create work as powerful as the academically trained. With the American Visionary Art Museum in our midst, Baltimoreans are especially aware of this. As a man at the Vodou show said the other day, "This feels like the visionary art museum."

It does. Vodou resembles outsider art in the sometimes naive appearing but always strongly felt product of Vodou artists, in its willingness to use everyday materials, and in the free commingling of many elements. The Vodou altars and temple reproduced here look a little like visionary environments, in which individual objects are less important than the assemblage as a whole.

There is one crucial difference, however: the visionary environment is an entity in itself, whereas the Vodou temple and altar need human interaction in ritual and in daily life to make them whole. For that reason, although the Vodou exhibit builds up to the re-created temple and three altars, they constitute the show's weakest link.

Despite the inclusion of videos and photos showing this human interaction, the re-creations themselves feel sterile and uncomfortable in a museum setting. Without the vibrant life that normally interacts with them, they seem lonely relics of a past age.

The first three quarters of the show, divided into thematic sections, are much better. Excellently organized, they break down Vodou into separate elements to explain it through its art.

The show opens with a group of modern paintings about the history of the Haitian people, from their importation as slaves to their revolution and establishment of an independent nation in 1804, and through subsequent persecutions. Their bold colors and clear narrative style make these paintings an especially effective introduction to the subject.

A section on individual Vodou spirits explains their functions (Gran Bwa, lord of the forest; Azaka, patron of agriculture). It also shows the types of objects associated with them from ceremonial flags to shells, bottles and mirrors. Another section explains the complex sources of Vodou, including African religions, Catholicism, Freemasonry and European mysticism.

Still other sections deal with objects: the beautifully made "flags," which are really icons to various deities, made of fabric, sequins and beads; and tools used in ceremonies, for healing and to give power, such as drums, medicine packets and the sorcerer's bottle.

The final themed section comprises the works of five modern artists -- flag-maker Antoine Oleyant, sculptor Georges Liautaud, assemblage artist Pierrot Barra, painters Hector Hyppolite and Edouard Duval-Carrie. Of them all, Liautaud's iron figures possess so much humanity they may evoke the deepest response.

The exhibit serves as an admirable introduction to Vodou art and culture. And even the emptiness the visitor feels when visiting the temple and the altars has its own valuable lesson to impart: that no museum exhibit can adequately represent what curator Donald Cosentino calls "a way of life." This one probably does as much as can be done, however.

'Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou'

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Aug. 30

Admission: $6 adults, $4 seniors and students, free 18 and under %

Call: 410-396-7100

Pub Date: 6/17/98

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