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Gambit Weekly Sacred Sisters

By D. Eric Bookhardt

FEBRUARY 9, 1998: 

"The one certainty in the uncertain saga of this exhibition is that it would travel to New Orleans. ... The Big Easy is the North American beachhead of vodou."

So said Donald Consentino, co-curator of the New Orleans Museum of Art's Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou show. An extravaganza of Afro-Caribbean art forms, the show features more than 500 colorful items ranging from sequined and beaded flags, dolls and painted calabashes to musical instruments and contemporary paintings. All of this was planned and assembled during a time when Haiti underwent coups, crises, invasions and embargoes; hence, the "uncertainty" noted above.

As for "the North American beachhead of vodou" (the Haitian spelling of voodoo), Consentino says New Orleans is "the northern anchor of a spiritual world extending to Cuba, Haiti and across the Atlantic to Dahomey and Kongo, where the religion was born and where it leads a vigorous parallel life." But if Consentino's remarks help explain the role of New Orleans voodoo in relation to Haiti, Africa and the world, we are left with the more elusive task of trying to understand the role of voodoo in New Orleans itself. Although it is "in the air," as they say, voodoo's local legacy is a folkloric gumbo of myths and legends, and, as such, it is as elusive as the shape-shifting mists that waft over the river and through the city streets in February.

We have grown up with it in art, music and stories -- Dr. John's early albums were filled with the stuff, as were the accounts of local culture by writers Robert Tallant and Lyle Saxon (especially in works like Gumbo Ya-Ya, their classic urban folklore tome). Movies like Angel Heart and that old James Bond thriller Live and Let Die cemented the public's perception of New Orleans as a place inextricably linked to Caribbean craziness, black magic and miscellaneous hanky panky. But those are only modern examples of a legacy of sensationalism dating back to at least a century ago, when reporters for Harper's Weekly would hit town and, after long nights spent personally investigating the depravity of Storyville and the mind-altering effects of pure absinthe, would report what they saw -- or thought they saw -- at voodoo rituals on Bayou St. John. Inevitably presided over by Marie Laveau (or someone sort of like her), these ceremonies always featured strange chants, snake dancing, sacrificial animals and orgiastic tomfoolery of all sorts.

Haitian voodoo altars -- which are more elaborate than their New Orleans counterparts -- still resonate with the palpable presence of the loas.
Sin City. It made for wonderfully lurid copy, and who could dispute it? Voodoo was (and still is) an underground religion, a secret within a mystery. Even today, there are few certainties.

"All we know for sure is that characters like Marie Laveau and the original Dr. John really did exist, and that voodoo came from Africa by way of the Caribbean at a time when Haiti, Martinique and New Orleans were sister colonies of the French empire," said Stephen Duplantier, a local culture historian and environmental communications director at Xavier University. "But while New Orleans and Haiti were born into the same colonial family, they evolved very differently after the French connection was severed."

Duplantier's description is intriguing in the way it dangles before us a tantalizing vision of this city and Haiti as siblings separated since childhood. Haiti, the rebel runaway, mounted the only slave revolution in history to defeat a major European power in battle. France was left so shaken that it quickly sold New Orleans, along with the rest of Louisiana, to the rich but puritanical Americans. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But whose history? Drawing heavily on 19th century newspaper stories and oral accounts, Robert Tallant's 1946 anthropological potboiler Voodoo in New Orleans assures us that at various points in the last century, Marie Laveau and later her daughter, Marie Glapion (also called Marie Laveau), were community forces to be reckoned with, lady ayatollahs with the clout to turn the tide of court cases and elections. (Apparently, zombies were a big voting bloc even then).

The picture that emerges is of a savvy, crafty businesswoman, a hairdresser by day who made shrewd use of the information she gleaned on the job and who, come evening, was transformed into a priestess of the night, an Afro-American sorceress not unlike the old mythic stereotype of European witches.

The colorful and intricate bead work present in many voodoo pieces can be seen in local creations like Mardi Gras Indian costumes
Then again, sensational stories rely heavily on conjecture, and some memories are prone to fade even as others are amplified over time. What stands out is that women were more prominent in New Orleans voodoo than they were in Haiti, where male priests were the norm. This is a noteworthy local ripple because, by Tallant's account, voodoo's very presence here was amplified by a number of Haitian free people of color who came in the wake of the slave revolution. That group comprised mostly middle-class Creoles who, by some estimates, might have made up more than one-third of the local population by the early 19th century.

Even so, beliefs are even less accountable than numbers. Voodoo in New Orleans, as in Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean, is an oral tradition. Because no official records are kept, all most people will ever see of it are the outer signs and trappings of a mysterious yet familiar culture. In this vein, NOMA's Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou is noteworthy for its familiarity and its strangeness and, ultimately, for the questions it raises about the hermetic secret soul of old New Orleans herself.

Most New Orleanians will find the show a bit less strange than it might seem for residents of say, Massachusetts or Iowa. Take, for instance, the sequins and beadwork of Haitian voodoo flags and sacred objects; the parallels with Mardi Gras Indian costumes are a little too obvious to ignore. (It should be noted that many Afro-Caribbean cultures have their own versions of Mardi Gras Indian societies with similar beaded, sequined costumes, often charged with ritual voodoo significance). The flamboyant colors and surreal sense of design seen throughout this Haitian Vodou show also are reminiscent of Mardi Gras. And Haitian primitive art objects can be remarkably similar to those of Louisiana's self-taught visionary artists, such as the late David Butler.

The show also contains polished and sophisticated paintings by modern Haitian masters like Edouard Duval-Carrie. Once we get past their distinctly voodoo content, they are noteworthy for their dreamlike storytelling style -- a tendency often seen in our local art scene as well. And when it finally comes down to the nitty gritty, bottom-line business of voodoo altars, it should be noted that the most obvious difference between local altars and their Haitian counterparts is that the latter are sometimes more elaborate. But then, in the two centuries that elapsed since Haiti and New Orleans were sister colonies, voodoo has been a much more visible presence there (despite periodic crackdowns) than it has been here. In fact, this Haitian Vodou show is distinguished not just by the scope of its altars but by the almost palpable presence of the loas, the sacred spirits of West Africa. It is an eerie kind of aliveness that can be sensed rather than merely viewed, as in the case of more ordinary museum exhibits.

As voodoo becomes more open and visible in this city, local altars seem to be increasing in size and scope as well. The shrines and altars of the Voodoo Spiritual Temple on North Rampart Street are classically Caribbean in appearance; in fact, the viewer may imagine himself in Haiti. But the overall content is fairly similar in either case: a welter of candles, bottles, crucifixes, pictures, shells, food or fruit, dolls or doll parts and the inevitable statues of Catholic saints.

"Voodooists often regard themselves as devout Catholics," Duplantier said. "It is one of the great historical coincidences that the attributes of some Roman Catholic saints just happened to resemble those of certain loas, which fulfilled a similar function in their society."

'People who need help with health, emotional or spiritual matters seek guidance from those who comprehend the voice of the universe,' said a local voodoo priestess. She works with 'loas' to 'serve the needs of people.'
And this highlights a nagging, underlying question: Just what exactly is voodoo, anyway? This NOMA exhibit provides us with an intriguing, even inviting, view of what it looks like, but what is it really? And what about all those sensational movies filled with zombies, hexes and voodoo dolls riddled with pins?

"The voodoo priest or priestess works with the loas to serve the needs of people," said Priestess Miriam as she serenely surveyed the colorfully sculptural interior of the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple. "The movies were just reflections of society's negativity, but now people are rising beyond that to a higher spiritual plane.

"Voodoo works with energy and movement to offer a more direct experience of spirituality," she said. "People who need help with health, emotional or spiritual matters seek guidance from those who comprehend the voice of the universe, the voice of the High Master, just as the pope in Rome interprets the Holy Spirit from within that house. The names of the loas have always come through the tongues of people who could comprehend them."

Born in Mississippi, Priestess Miriam worked for years with spiritualist churches in Chicago, where she met Oswan Chamani, an herbal healer, or obeah man, from Belize. They moved to New Orleans and founded the Voodoo Spiritual Temple in 1990. Chamani died in 1995, but Priestess Miriam continues their mission with the aid of temple priests and supporters like scholars Luis Nunez, the author of Santeria, a study of the voodoo-like Hispanic religion, and Louis Martinie, the author of The New Orleans Voodoo Tarot.

Elaborating on Priestess Miriam's remarks, Martinie notes the difficulty of trying to define voodoo in the more or less rational ways of the Western world.

"Even the word itself is elusive," Martinie said. "It originated with the Fon word 'voudoun,' which meant a kind of power or mystery and which in Haiti is used to describe a type of rite, but not the religion as a whole. The use of 'voodoo' as the name for the religious system as a whole probably originated here, so that now New Orleans is more closely associated with voodoo than any other city."

The name may be African in origin, but Martinie is quick to note that voodoo itself reflects "a merging of African, Native American and European beliefs brought together by African slaves for survival purposes." In fact, even the cliched old voodoo doll impaled with pins actually may have originated with the European folk magic tradition.

So once again, voodoo eludes any attempt at logical analysis. On the contrary, as Martinie says of the loas, "any effort to describe them seems obtuse; no definition can capture their shifting essence."

Thanks in part to her tomb in St. Louis No. 1, Marie Laveau remains a powerful force in the world of voodoo.
Yet folk magic is not in itself voodoo. "A voodoo ceremony invokes the ancestors and at least one or more loa, with Papa Legba, the Guardian of the Threshold, called upon to open the door to the World of the Invisibles," Martinie said.

This pantheon sets the tone of the Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou show in figures that frequently assume the familiar names of Catholic saints while actually representing the spirits of ancient Africa. A related phenomenon also can be seen in Sally Glassman's paintings at the Waiting Room Gallery in Bywater.

Glassman, like Priestess Miriam, Luis Nunez and Louis Martinie, is an example of someone who came to reside in this city in part because of its pronounced voodoo aura. Originally from Maine, Glassman is white, Jewish and a longtime voodoo priestess in these parts. The illustrator of The New Orleans Voodoo Tarot and a maker of classical sequined voodoo flags, Glassman for years has rendered her own unique visions in a quasi-hallucinogenic, dreamlike style of painting.

Beyond the classical African loas and Catholic saints of the familiar voodoo pantheon, Glassman's subjects also include a rhapsodic view of the Hindu goddess Kali and even images of the dreamtime spirits of Australia. And if this sounds off the subject -- or even off the wall -- it probably isn't.

Said Glassman, "Voodoo has always been strikingly inclusive and tolerant of other faiths." Or, as Nunez put it, "The more the merrier."

A glance around Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou reveals such unlikely figures as Ho-tei, the jolly fat Japanese god of good luck, a ubiquitous icon in voodoo altars from Rio to Marrero. This ecumenical quality has typified the evolution of both voodoo and Santeria from the start.

Nunez, for example, notes that the African warrior deity Chango -- "a whoring god of storm and lightning" -- transformed into St. Barbara back in the early days of the Santeria faith, a transition that worked for the African slaves as well as European Catholics. "Everyone felt much more protected now that Chango was both a warrior and a female saint in the church," he said.

Catholic icons are prevalent in voodoo symbolism. 'Voodooists often regard themselves as devout Catholics,' said a local cultural historian.
So it went, and so it goes. Voodoo and New Orleans share a common capacity to absorb diverse influences without losing their essential mystique. Just as voodoo has managed to absorb native cultures from Africa, Europe and the Caribbean while maintaining its unique essence, so New Orleans has been called -- simultaneously, yet somehow correctly -- the most African, the most Caribbean and the most European city in America.

Located at a place where the natural passages of the land, the lakes and the rivers approach the sea, the Crescent City is a natural crossroads. And in voodoo, as in most forms of shamanism, the crossroads is a sacred space -- a place, as priestess Miriam explains it, "where the energies of all things come together."

Bearing this in mind, no one should be shocked to learn that Renoir and Monet now dwell under the same roof with the spirit of Papa Legba, the loa of the crossroads, at least for now. Indeed, in a city where a respected former mayor lies buried next to the most infamous voodoo priestess of the Western world, such things should come as no great surprise to anyone. .

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