Vodou Riche – A Columbia College, Chicago Art Installation

•October 19, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Review by R.G. Hess, Senior, MFA Fiction Writing

Do do that Vodou that you do so well…

For a big chunk of North America, religion comes in two flavors – kosher and extra goy. Sure that’s a gross oversimplification; the gentiles alone deliver a full range of extremes, from the screaming in tongues, snake kissing Pentecostal crazies, to the staid, blue blazer, church-before-cocktails-on-the-veranda Episcopalian crowd. And, of course, the Hebrews can be just as colorful, as anyone who’s ever roamed the lower east side of Manhattan can attest. But diverse as this sampling of sinners may be, they all pray to a God (or G-d) who’s “out there” somewhere. He’s up on the divine dais, calling the shots, like John Madden from the booth on Monday Night Football.

That’s not the way Vodou works; and though it may come as a shock to the membership of the PTL Club, Vodou isn’t about sticking pins in a caricature of your ex – it’s a religion. It’s just a more familiar, hi-how you doin’, could you grab me a Coke out of the fridge, kind of relationship with the Gods. Vodou springs from the collision of native African mysticism – imported to the Americas by the slavery trades of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – and the imposition of Catholicism by their French masters on the newly landed slaves.

The imperial domination and forced labor thing didn’t work out so well for the French on Haiti, and try as they might, they couldn’t get rid of their subjects system of beliefs. Europe and Africa wrestled around for a while, until the French finally got themselves kicked off the island and back on up the Gulf Stream. But some of their saints stayed behind, got friendly with the new Gods, worked up a dialogue, and the Vodou of the New World was born.

Vodou’s not exactly some insignificant cult either. It has developed over many centuries and is a mélange of diverse cultural influences. Anyone who’s ever traveled around the Caribbean, and especially Cuba and the D.R., is familiar with the manner in which a good number of the citizens there casually assimilate this faith into their everyday lives. Most homes have an Alter and prayer is an ingrained and regular part of the daily ritual. That’s not to say that it’s not treated with reverence. But the polytheistic adherents of Vodou and her related credos operate with an understanding that the chimerical illusions of this life and those mysteries held in the next world are intricately overlapped and intertwined. God’s not hiding somewhere up behind a cloud – he, she and it are right here beside us, inhabiting the dirt and trees and rocks and animals that create the texture of our lives.

So come a talented troupe of Haitian artists to Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Gallery, bearing their reflections on the influence Vodou has had in their life and art. As one might expect of any concept of spirituality that walks and talks with the animals, sex plays a big part. In the Western World, the Christian Church and its centuries of determined repression have tried, with everything they could think of, to separate the interrelationship between sex and life’s Big Questions. Fortunately, the only place that that quackery seems to have taken hold is with blue state Republicans, but nonetheless, the majority of the United States is still a pretty straight laced locale.

The Vodou Riche exhibit gets down and grovels in the pure joy of human sexual expression: there are huge phallic presentations and lithe and ample representations of female form, many rendered in the bright, festive colors one might expect from craftsmen reared in the tropics. This is not a stuffy, starched collar worship, this is a smack your belly, big guffaw, celebration of life. The artists employ any number of mediums; beads and oil and sculpture and clay. Their approaches are as varied as their multiethnic, polyglot culture.

The exhibits curator, Neysa Page-Lieberman, relates the story of how one of the artists, a sculptor whose constructions are prodigiously and improbably endowed, walked into the gallery and slapped his handiwork on the massive wooden expression of its masculinity, which appendage immediately jiggled and bobbed to an alarming degree. The sculptor, Jean Herard Celeur, laughed.

That’s Vodou Riche – art interacting with everyday life, not a Mona Lisa sequestered behind five inches of bullet-proof glass. Like the religion that inspired it, the artist’s art and life overlap and dance together, they get their hands dirty, they communicate and have fun. This exhibit dares you to walk around with your hands clasped behind your back, nodding gravely at the self-importance of Art. It will mock you if you try. This is art that grew up peeking through the crack in the wall into the girl’s locker room, putting a frog in the teacher’s desk drawer, dropping a firecracker into the john.
Haiti is a poor country, no doubt about it. And so it’s all the more remarkable that these artists have managed to make their statements and carve a space out of their lives to dedicate to their work. A number of the pieces are made from found objects. That’s amazing, considering the poverty of the environment – there still are things that are thrown away. And not just a few odds and ends, but massive quantities of metal and glass and fabric. It’s a commentary on the consumer culture and planned obsolescence that, even in a nation on the most abject end of the world economic scale, there remains a lot of junk. It’s arresting and imaginative, a witty and accomplished assemblage that these artists, such as Eduoard Deval Carrie and Jean Herard Celeur, have managed to create from what they had at hand.

The home alters, at which adherents of Vodou worship, are populated with everyday objects, even if their composition might be a tad unorthodox. One of the installations of this exhibit is just such a construction; layered shelves strewn with offerings designed to entreat the Gods to intercede in one’s favor. Coins and tobacco, candles and food; the things that the people of the earth value are those items that entice the spirits. Those deities are represented by human shapes manifested, among others, in the form of small dolls that have been captured in glass jars, dolls held in poses that arrest their movement so that they will be available to hear their petitioners. It’s disturbing and kitschy and comic and deferential.

That’s how this exhibit, Vodou Riche, works its magic on the viewer. You stand under a hot sun, feeling calypso rhythms, begging for more. You long to be out of the staid environs of the gallery and hunkered down with the craftsmen, sipping a beer. We’re caught by the imagery and imagination of the artists, listening as they tell their story, celebrating with them the tragic and comic and lusty journey that is life.


Vodou Riche Exhibit – by Matt Vasiliauskas

•October 19, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Review of the Vodou Riche Exhibit at Columbia College Chicago:

For well over a century now, much of western literature and cinema has depicted Haiti as a rather foreboding and dangerous country. It is a place of poverty, rampant violence and a region where the bizarre religious practices of the native people are said to be directed such to the side of evil that they have the ability to raise the dead. Examples of this can be seen in a variety of Hollywood films.

It is these misconceptions of Haiti that have led many outsiders to tack on an unnecessary stigma to this culturally rich nation.

Haiti was born from a slave rebellion, the only country to do so in such a manner. It is this spirit of struggle, growth and ultimately freedom that dominates the work contained within the Glass Curtain gallery’s latest exhibit Vodou Riche, Contemporary Haitian Art, which runs now through October 16th.

The exhibit features artists of Haitian origin from all over the world, allowing the varying views of the country’s heritage, religion and citizens to mesh into one vivid illustration of life and the complexities which embody it.

Vodou, meaning “Service to the Spirits,” is truly an appropriate theme for the showcased pieces, for the word unintentionally provides the initial stigma the majority of audience members are likely to possess, but through the displayed works, allows for a sort of metamorphosis of misconception into greater understanding.

The exhibit features an eclectic mix of painting, sculpture, installation and hand craft such has the beautiful sequined Vodou flags or drapos. These elaborate renderings of religious beliefs will often feature the snake patriarch Danbala, or Ezili Dantor, celestial earth mother and divine warrior. In many ways these creations mirror Roman Catholic processional banners, which is no surprise considering the significant influence Catholicism has had on Vodou. It is a way of welcoming the spirits, and whether displayed in home or within the confines of a sacred arena, provide extremely rewarding
religious and aesthetic elements.

Besides Roman Catholic influence, African ancestry as well as French Colonialism lends itself to the Vodou belief structure which can be seen throughout many of the works within the exhibit. Ideas of spirits, angels, material offerings and prayers dominate these pieces, transporting the viewer into the mentality of the depicted spirit as well as the artist.

One of the more well known artists featured is Edouard Duval Carrie. Born in Port-au-Prince but currently residing in Miami, Carrie’s work is able to incorporate the historically and religiously complex aspects of Haitian life. It through works such as “My Life as a Tree,” that Carrie is able to delve deep within his psyche, revealing thoughts behind his own origins and beliefs. Like much of Haitian art, and as the title would suggest, the work shows the roots, body and continued growth of a nation desperately wanting to benefit its people in every aspect possible.

There is a saying that Haiti is 80% Roman Catholic, 20% Protestant and 100% Vodou. These numbers do not lie, and from every drop of paint, to meticulously stitched piece of fabric hanging from the walls, one can see the extreme reverence and creative potential of the Haitian people.

Vodou Riche Exhibit – by Anita Simmons

•October 18, 2007 • Leave a Comment

When most Americans outside of Haiti hear the word Voudou, they automatically assume the worst. This notion can be best expressed as people fear what they don’t know. It isn’t in most American curriculums, or institutions that we learn about Haitian art, or Voudou inspired art, when the United States is a society based on Christian beliefs, morals, and values.

Columbia College Chicago, can be credited as being one of the breakthrough colleges that had the open-mindedness to welcome the Haitian art exhibit, Voudou Riche. The exhibit has been housed at Columbia College Chicago since August 27 2007 in its Glass Curtain Gallery, 1104 S. Wabash Ave, and will end October 16, 2007. The exhibit is free and open to the public, which makes the art more accessible to art viewers and students alike.

The curator of the exhibit, Ms. Neysa Page-Lieberman added a wonderful touch of rhetorical skill and immense knowledge to exhibit. Her nonchalant, down to earth style conveyed to me her comfortable and earned place as a continually learning student in the field of African art forms, and Haitian religion and culture. Her appreciation and acceptance of Haitian art, and their national religion Voudou despite her different cultural, ethnic, racial, social, and religious background was apparent, well needed and well deserved.

Seeing the Voudou Riche exhibit for the first time in its entirety I was blown away. All the negative connotations associated with Voudou didn’t matter to me because at one point in my life I wanted, and still plan to adapt Voudou as my religion since I am non-religious. I had done my own previous research on Voudou, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw at the exhibit. Huge penises, dolls bound to chairs, dolls in bottles, rum and cigars on the altar, the spirit Gede, not knowing whether he wanted to masturbate or urinate was all too overwhelmingly funny and intriguing to me. I loved it. Since Haitians are geographically African Americans I felt a spiritual connection to the exhibit being an African American woman myself. Isn’t that one of main purposes of art, to have a spiritual connection?

The exhibit did a wonderful job of exploring the complexities and intricate connections between Voudou and Catholicism. I readily identified the double consciousness that W.E.B. DuBois declares that all peoples of African descent embody through all the artist’s pieces. My ultimate favorite piece that had me transfixed the moment I laid eyes on it was the green deity, Ms. Erzulie Freda, the goddess of love and luxury. Mr. Frantz Jacques created Ms. Freda as a modern-day punk rocker character. Everything about Erzulie screamed confidence, that’s why I loved her. With her feet planted firmly, her tattoos, and her helmet, she was ready to combat love. She reminded me so much of myself that I simply adored her. What also caught my attention about Erzulie Freda was the hole staring at us in her crotch that was intentionally made for the insertion of the huge penis. Putting aside my feminist beliefs for the sake of art, I allowed myself to find humor in the situation as the artist himself had intended.

The essence of the exhibit, turning nothing into something, laughing to keep from crying, letting the world know that Haiti does exist and can thrive in the realm of creative expression we call art. I commend and thank all of the artists for giving their viewers a unique lens in which to view contemporary Haitian art, and shattering negative misconceptions and preconceived notions associated with Voudou for years to come.

Anita Simmons
Cultural Studies Major
Black World Studies Minor

The Faint and Victim Art – by Michael Lovely

•October 17, 2007 • Leave a Comment

“smaller tits and younger limbs can cause a fit of rivalry”

This is a line from one of my favorite songs created by The Faint. The song contemplates the morality of being and watching strippers. In the end it puts most blame on the viewers of the strippers for why they are there. It is a playful song with a lot of wit, atmosphere and catchy on top of it. It has all this and carries the bands idea that it is men’s succumbing to their derogated desires, which keep victimizing these people who have to strip.

When I started reading Rebecca Roberts “Victim Art: and the art of suffering” This song and its correlating topics came to mind. Roberts anecdote about the stripper at the pop-culture conference was disappointing to say the least. For the most part, I read this paper and wanted to argue. But not argue in the good way. You know, the way in which someone says something that opposes my ideas but is intelligent and fundamentally forces my brain to work at a rebuttal. No. I wanted to argue in the way people who are misinformed about something but go on talking to you as if they are sure they are right. Now I am not saying Roberts is this type of person, or that she is not intelligent her self. I am saying her arguments and anecdotes left lots of holes and questions to be asked.

This frustrations was fueled even more bye the lack of personality I felt it had. I think the moment I checked out was when she referred to the stripper “pushing out her ample rump for us” Ample rump? What is this a Jackie Collins novel? If you have read the paper, or if you deduced it from the papers titled, you will know that this small anecdote that I have been talking about is merely a catalyst for her main discussion on victim art. It is the bulk of the paper. So why have I made this small part such the focus of my paper?

Two reasons. First of all, I have read Arlene Croce’s paper on victim art. I have also read rebuttals to Croce’s points. I suggest anyone who hasn’t read Roberts paper yet, go read Croce’s and perhaps someone’s direct response to her. It is all the same information and points, but with more heart and charm. Charms an odd term for it, since it causes readers in a lot of cases to get angry. But this is the good kind. The kind I spoke of before, that forces you to think about new ideas and really work your mind, to be able to dispute your case. I believe the wit and genuineness of Croce definitely has charm.

The second reason I am stuck on this stripper business is that the whole begging of the paper distracted me so much, I would think about it as I read on threw. Essentially it put me in a bad mood and I dwelled. Not something I think Roberts intended to do.

But I am a nice person. I would like to see Roberts have another try at it, this time focusing on the stripper story. Feeling the out the whole question of stripping as an art. Because you have to resolve that, call it an art, before it can be victim art. Maybe this poor girl was just a victim. In my opinion stripping is an art. But not to the degree in which Roberts gave it. It is a trade art, just the same as making a nice fork. Anyone can try to do it. But it takes time and skill to master this trade/art. The thing missing is the artist predestined message or resoling for their art piece. In the form of tradesmen-ship, the artist is merely perfecting a design or movement in which others want to purchase. To a certain extent. So this striper, who had HIV, wasn’t victim art, she was a workingwoman we felt bad for.

Michael Lovely’s favorite line in the faint song is:

“but it is a job, it pays a lot.
is it disservicing someone?
and is it good to get these men worked up so sexual?”

Vodou Riche Exhibit – by Annie Hobbs

•October 17, 2007 • Leave a Comment

To be totally honest, i wasn’t expecting much on my arrival to Columbia’s first floor gallery in 1104 S. Wabash because I had seen the flyers and to me, the art wasn’t aesthetically or even emotionally appealing. However, my mind soon changed after I had had the art explained to me. This is a time when context apparently mattered to me. Without context, the art looks as though children could have done it, with the exception of the extraordinarly detailed beaded prayer flags. I mean, doll heads on sticks and in bottles, sculptures of little girls with glasses and combat hats on…Just wasn’t my thing, I guess, but when Page-Lieberman came in to give us a “tour,” I quickly changed my mind. I learned about how the dolls are used all the time there to represent spirits, and about the sense of humor that all Haitians seem to have to carry with them. Everything looked well-done and more meaningful in this new light. The history of Haiti and its people are the main focus of all of their art. This is a culture that deserves it. If American art only focused on the good American culture, there wouldn’t be much art, much less any good art, but Haiti is a different story. Spirituality is their way of life, and everything they do is for the spirits, especially their art-making.

The altar was the first piece explained to us. It is a huge table set up with cloths and bottles with babies in them, and crosses with babies heads on them, and snakes and candles and offerings made to the gods. At first glance, this looks like a very messy and demonic child’s top of their toy chest. But it has a heaping amount more of significance than a childs’ toy chest does. Everything on the altar means something. And the intricacies! People took TIME to set up something special in which they could pray to, and that’s fantastic. Haitians do a lot of hard work and get nothing in return, so I really started to admire this altar. Above the altar, and around the entire exhibit were the beaded prayer flags I mentioned before. These especially caught my attention as they were the most colorful and attractive art works in the exhibit. These took HOURS upon HOURS to make. The detail is incredible.

At first, the Haitians used sequins to sew on and make an image of a spirit or a scene that would grant them something, but then one woman revolutionized the way prayer flags were made and thought of ever more. Constante started making these flags with the smallest beads imaginable, and did it flawlessly. She started out sewing them each by hand, but eventually got popular and could afford to hire apprentices who also made it big with these flags. One can tell that much planning and thought about placement, color, and imagery goes into one flag. Also going into these flags are patience, time, money, and prayers. They are brilliant and showy and in your face and I can see why there is a high demand for them in galleries around the world.

I really loved the found sculpture art of the three spirits on the motorcycles, and the self-portraits by Eduoard Deval Carrie. They show that there is contemporary art coming from Haiti/Haitians that still has this sense of spirituality along with other contemporary issues. The self-portraits were of my interest because of their scale and how different they were compared to all of the other pieces in the show. They really didn’t have much to do with the spirits, but more about the artist himself and his struggles with leaving a country that he loved to actually make something of his life and make a name for himself in the world. Duval Carrie also used many media in his self-portraits which can be an inicator of a talented fine artist, and that he is.

This exhibit opened my eyes to the art of Haiti, where it came from and its plethora of meanings. The smallest details make the biggest impact, and that’s why I grew to love this exhibit and spread the word about it. Everything about it screams about how different their lives are, and in my opinion, it’s important to open our minds to every culture we have the availability to, especially in person like this exhibit has allowed me.

Annie Hobbs is a third-year photography major. Her plans are to get out of the United States as soon as she finishes undergrad and get her masters in Europe or Canada to become the finest of the fine art photographers.

Vodou Riche Exhibit – by Jessica Greske

•October 16, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Review of the Vodou Riche Exhibit at Columbia College Chicago:

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, crushes that title when looked at through the art of the country. Voudou Riche, the contemporary Haitian art exhibit at Columbia College Chicago’s Glass Curtain Gallery, gives us a look at some of the art and culture from this country. From the vibrant colors on the Haitian flags to the sculptures of skulls with giant penises, we are able to get a taste of the culture in different ways.

We are able to see an altar with the offerings to the Gods. The altar shrouded in black with doll heads in bottles and dolls bound to chairs perched upon it so the Gods stay present and listen to the prayers. There are hand-made crosses with snakes wrapped tight around them. The snake is peaceful in Haitian religion unlike in America where the snake is feared. This seemed to be the case with other objects in the Haitian religion if it was something bad in America it was cherished in Haiti. Take voodoo for example, Hollywood has shoved it down our throats that Voodoo is bad and involves hurting another person, yet in Haiti it is the complete opposite.

Upon first look the goddess of love resembles a horror film zombie. With her green skin, thin hair and combat gear, she is not the picture-esque version of a love goddess; instead she is on her way to battle. Her exposed vagina is supposed to make us laugh along with the skulls on motorcycles with giant penises that are nearby. We are asked to not be so serious all the time, there is always room for laughter.

Voudou Riche was a wonderful example of what can be found when you look beyond the obvious (the poverty of the country) and tune into what the people are saying through their art.

Jessica Greske is finishing up her last year of Columbia in style with plans to move out West come May.

Review of Vodou Riche by Brice Habeger

•October 13, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Review of the Vodou Riche Exhibit at Columbia College Chicago:

The sculpture is little more than a human skull perched on an iron framework that looks like the metal front forks of a motorcycle. Plus one significant detail: A giant phallus complete with metal bits of protective covering, which Neysa Page-Lieberman, the sweet and innocent looking director of C-spaces at Columbia College Chicago, points to and informs us that the artist meant to be humorous.

Here among the artifacts of Vodou, Vodou being the prominent religion of Haiti. Here among the colorful kaleidoscope of trash turned religious art, a motorcycle riding skull sticks out his giant penis and asks us to laugh.

At what? It’s size.

Possibly. But can you imagine giving offerings or praying to a giant cock spirit? Every day, every guy in America offers religious servitude to his penis every time he glances at a good looking backside. Can you imagine expressing genuine concerns to a religious relic like the described?

“Gede (a Haitian spirit of death and good humour) please grant me this that I ask… just please, not in the eye.”

The irony is effective and quite possibly this is the dialogue that ‘ol Jean Herard Celeur imagined when he conjured up this fabrication from the trash that he found around Port-au-Prince. Or possibly for him it’s the “I drive the big truck to make up for smaller inadequacies in my life”. Or maybe it’svodoupostcard.gif simply the Voudou that you do, Celeur.

Whether that is the case or not, the Vodou Riche exhibit is filled with similar images and sculptures from a religion and culture of which our American understanding comes mostly from movies.

Gone are the dolls that, to us, are always associated with such religious practices. Instead we have altars filled with a hand crafted assortment of rainbow colored dolls and crosses. The crosses, wrapped in snaking clothe and a found doll’s head, represent where the spirit world meets our own. The dolls are bound to their chairs or stuffed into bottles, both of which, as Page-Lieberman explains, is an attempt to force the spirits represented by these figures to be present while the practitioners utter their requests.

The exhibit consists of religious art from Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The eclectic, trash like nature of the art; the assorted pieces and bits strung together to form a flying fetus doll are just that, trash that has been fastened into an object of religious devotion.

In their color and creativeness alone most of the pieces are worthy of praise. The iconography (the blackened skulls, purple crosses, writhing spirits) might cause most to reject on sheer principle. The somewhat childish approach to the nature of making art out of trash and doll’s heads might cause others to give the relics a cursory glance. And to us, those who aren’t practitioners of Vodou, that might be enough.

We all know the saying. “One man’s trash…” In this case, it is another man’s way of life or religious devotion. If the dolls or the motorcycle riding horseman of the a-cock-alypse don’t conjure up thoughts of “high art”, then possibly the images of Edouard Duval-Carrie will.

Duval-Carrie was born in Haiti but undertook formal training in art abroad. His mud smeared images of layered glasswork lit with little pinpoints of light are quite startling when compared to their “opposites” throughout the rest of the gallery. They are hand painted, multi-layered images of trees whose roots and limbs unfurl like the bodies of golden snakes. The light shines through and illuminates the steel stare, gray gaze, and cold blue look of eyes and flitting birds caught in flight. Orbs, like golden Christmas tree ornaments or small planets, are caught between the planes of glass. The whole of which combines to create an image with striking depth and beauty.

Voudou Riche, to us, depicts a colorful world of intrigue and beauty. The collected works are remarkable in their creativity if not, in the case of the endowed motorcycle rider, their apparent audacity. Then again one man’s apparent audacity, one man’s giant phallus-ed biker, may be another man’s object of devotion, and judging by the time it would take to produce just one of the cloth wrapped dolls this is the case.

Brice Habeger would like to skip the rest of his career and go straight into retirement. Then he could snowboard, write, and makes movies for fun.