Vodou at the Field Museum

Last night, we went to the Field Museum’s Vodou exhibition as part of Donor’s night. We went as guests and we had a lovely time. It was a chance for the museum to showcase its new exhibition while steward loyal patrons. I think they did a nice job.

It started with a buffet of Haitian food, which was rather exciting. I don’t think I’ve had Haitian food before; I’ve had Cuban and Dominican Republic food but not specifically Haitian. There was a wonderful bean patty that was delicious with a touch of sour cream. There were spicy plantain chips, a chickpea salad, and a tasty Cuban sandwich.

After dinner, we ventured into the Voodoo exhibition itself. I’ve been rather excited about seeing this exhibition. I’d read a little bit about Vodou and Haiti so I was keen to learn more. The exhibition focused on Haitian Vodou, as opposed to Vodou in New Orleans. The exhibition strived to educate people about the theology and practice of Vodou while showcasing incredible objects. The exhibition wanted to counter stereotypes people have about Vodou, such as vodou dolls and zombies. I don’t think either of those terms came up in the exhibition at all.

One thing that I liked about the exhibition was that the curators attempted to showcase these objects as religious objects, not works of art. These are not art pieces to be placed behind glass and admired from afar. These are working objects, imbued with specific meaning. My fiancé pointed out that the objects didn’t have artists’ names attached because the artists saw themselves as part of a long tradition, a collective, creating these religious pieces. Also, most objects were displayed without a glass case. Mind you, there were signs exhorting people not to touch the works.

When there was glass, it enhanced the experience. There was a room set off with particular objects, which allegedly were so full of power that they had to separated off. (This is what a docent said; I didn’t see it on the explanatory cards). There were incredible statues in red and black with small mirrors inserted throughout the body that represented various fighting Iwas, or Vodou spirits. They are truly impressive beings. Many have been maimed or injured and have missing body parties. Some are so powerful that they have to be strapped down with rope and chains to chairs. One of the most ferocious ones was a grandmother. That was really neat.

Iwas

I think this is Gede. He's the Iwa of Life and Death.
I think this is Gede. He’s the Iwa of Life and Death.

I found it fascinating to the inclusion of Catholic imagery in the sculpture and other objects. For many years, Vodou was forbidden so practitioners of Vodou could only practice by using Catholic saints and other rituals as covers. It created this wonderful blend of sacred ideas. Certain saints had their Vodou counterparts. I know that in Santeria, a different syncretic religion, St. Barbara is a stand in for Changó, Orisha of fire, war, lightning and thunder. There was also a Black Madonna sculpture that was adopted from Europe’s Cult of the Black Madonna. Apparently, this tradition came to Haiti from Poland when Napoleon forcibly conscripted Polish soldiers to fight there. They decided to side with the Haitians. That’s really nifty.

I also really liked how they had these TV screens throughout the exhibit. Each TV had a different person, a Vodou priestess, a ethno-psychiatrist, that talked about different subjects. One talked about how Vodou helped bring together African slaves that had come from different parts of Africa. Another person talked about the conception of death in Vodou. I like seeing these conversations more and more. I think the exhibition really tried to work with communities where Vodou is their lives. I think that these video screens help to bring them more immediately into the conversation. I think it’s worth a trip. I certainly learned a lot about Vodou.

That’s all for now!

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