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.