Religion and art in Haiti BMA exhibit: Lessons about political and cultural history unfold in colorful show.

July 04, 1998

THE ROLE of religion in motivating art is no secret. So the spiritual power of the large show "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou" at the Baltimore Museum of Art is not surprising.

The artistic tradition of Haiti is well-established. Many of its modern artists sell well.

The religious tradition is also well-known. Vodou (which Americans have spelled voodoo) is a mix of Central and West African religious beliefs, which slaves brought with them, the Catholicism of their French masters, and a bit of Freemasonry and popular world culture.

A visit to this show starts with modern paintings depicting decisive moments of Haitian history, including U.S. interventions, seen from a Haitian perspective.

Most of the art, ranging from works of great sophistication to self-taught "outsider art," is designed for religious practice and spiritual life.

The vibrant and colorful art, the altars and the reconstructed temple room suggest a visit to modern Port-au-Prince, the capital city. Several paintings of spirits suggest those of Christian saints and the Virgin Mary painted by Europeans a century or two earlier.

The show, organized by a professor of English and folklore at the University of California Los Angeles and shown at major museums in the past three years, is not overtly political.

But it is worth remembering that the recent U.S. intervention led to Haiti's first experience with democracy, which at the moment is working, with confusion.

Haiti is a work in progress. This is quite a view of it, running through August, particularly of the importance of religion and imagination in the lives of people who have little else.

Pub Date: 7/04/98

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