Real Vodou – not the Hollywood version – comes to the Field Museum

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Mention the word voodoo and it usually evokes the typical Hollywood stereotype: visions of the undead, vials of powdery medicines that cause trances and spooky people lancing dolls with stick pins. But mention the religion, Vodou, and the average person draws a blank. Vodou and voodoo are different, and the new “Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti” exhibit at The Field Museum explains why and how with a series of depictions of homemade art, artifacts and spiritual representations that showcase the breadth and depth of one of the world’s most ancient systems of belief.

“Life: that’s what Vodou is about,” says Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique, the co-curator of the groundbreaking exhibit that showcases rarely seen, spirit-inhabiting figurines made by Haitian families. “Vodou is the culture and identity of the Haitian people and the Haitian people are fundamental in the history of our hemisphere.”

VODOU: SACRED POWERS OF HAITI When: October 24, 2014 – April 26, 2015

Where: The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore DriveTickets: $18-$25 (includes general admission)Info: http://www.fieldmuseum.orgThat’s because the Spanish landed on the island now known as Haiti (and the Dominican Republic) in 1492. They weren’t the first to have traveled across the oceans to the Caribbean, but they were the first to attempt to exterminate the native Taino people already living there and also bring in enslaved Africans to work the sugar cane crops. Vodou became the power by which the indigenous people used to kill their captors and take back their land.

“They fled into the mountains, creating a culture of resistance,” says Beauvoir-Dominique, gesturing to a red, stuffed figure missing a wrist, but bearing a machete in its one good hand. In fact, a grouping of around seven such maimed and mutilated figures are described as warrior “Iwa,” (or to many others, “Lwa”) or spirits. Most carry a cross, or a spear and are decorated with mirrors. Some are roped or chained to the ground — a clue as to the figure’s power and the power of Haiti’s people. “It was a fighting culture that was able — five centuries later — to break their chains and become the very first black nation in the [New] World.”

But those aren’t the only spirits, which, according to Beauvoir-Dominique, were “asked” if they would like to be on display in a museum to represent Vodou. There are spirits that celebrate children — twins, even. And there are spirits that celebrate love and sexuality, the wise, and the old, and those who are at literal or spiritual crossroads. Some of the symbolism means one thing to an American but another to a practitioner of Vodou. There are snakes that have nothing to do with the serpent widely known in Christianity. And there are skulls and crossbones that aren’t related to a modern American’s understanding of the secular holiday of Halloween.

That’s the beauty of the two-room exhibit, located in the massive museum, just near Sue the dinosaur. It’s not some updated, bogus version of “The Serpent and the Rainbow.” Yes, there are actual skulls (and a impossible-to-ignore warning is posted warning that some of the figurines do use actual human remains.) There are clusters of life-sized figurines that are identified with their Iwa of West-African origin. For example, people familiar with such religious history might recognize Alegba, the “old man” or the “trickster” represented as St. Lazerus amongst items on a shrine. People unfamiliar with West-African religions but more familiar with Catholicism will also see definite overlaps between what Catholics might call saints and what others might call spirits.

The exhibit also features beautiful drums, mirrored and sequined fabric flags, and shining representations of mothers and grandmothers, fathers protecting their children from Spanish slavers, be-skulled urns and bejeweled flasks that hold special liquids. Each item was “de-sacrilized” says the curator, to be sure that its energy could be contained. There also is very little use of glass encasements in the exhibit, to allow for a more visceral experience. (It goes without saying that, for some, this is more than a museum exhibit and such steps make sense, in terms of being properly respectful of sacred objects.) There is a special plaque for Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Haitian immigrant who the first permanent resident of what would become Chicago.

In addition to offering basic Vodou education, the exhibit sheds much light on the people who managed to eradicate slavery — and beat Napoleon — by revolution and sheer will, under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture. In a more contemporaray vein, consider the work of literary giant Edwidge Danticat, ragtime king Jelly Roll Morton and entertainers Garcelle Beauvais and Wyclef Jean.

“These are people who have this reservoir of resilience,” says Alaka Wali, the Field Museum’s Curator of North American Anthropology and director of Applied Cultural Research.

The items on display are from the collection of Marianne Lehmann, who worked for the Swiss embassy in Haiti and wound up marrying a Haitian. Lehmann acquired the items after nearby families tried to sell their Vodou objects for food money. Lehmann apparently refused to buy the objects, instead giving the families money and promising to keep the objects safe. She amassed some 3,000 pieces, of which some 300 traveled to northern Europe, Ottowa, Canada and now Chicago.

The Field Museum, in the past, has explored a number of religious texts and ideas, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. This Vodou exhibit adds to the overall conversation.

“Right now you might be picturing evil spells and voodoo dolls but this exhibition invites you to look behind the stereotypes and experience the rituals of Vodou,” says Richard W. Lariviere, president of The Field Museum. “[It also] honors the spirit of resistance that has sustained Haiti through centuries and centuries of hardship.”

Email: agibbs@suntimes.com

Twitter: @AdrienneWrites

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