Vodou in Berlin
In our recent trip to Berlin, we happened across a wonderful exhibition at the Museen Dahlem – Vodou: Art and Cult from Haiti – which is on until 24th October 2010. If you should find yourself in Berlin, it’s well worth a look.
The exhibition is a selection from the collection of Marianne Lehmann (the largest collection worldwide of Vodou objects) and focuses in particular on the Bizango secret society. Lehmann, who lives in Port-au-Prince, has been collecting these objects for over thirty years and now has over 3,000 items – which fortunately survived the recent earthquake.. Her long-term aim is to set up an ethnographic museum devoted to Vodou culture in Haiti.
We tentatively entered the exhibition space (uncertain whether this was the entrance, there was no guard or warden, the reason probably being that nobody could bear (or could be expected) to stand out in the ante-room that was throbbing with heat) by opening a glass door and passing through a curtain which acted like a veil. The transition from bright dry sun-drenched heat to the cool dimly lit interior of the exhibition, pulsing with drum rhythms, was physical – entering the cool room and escaping the heat was a profound relief. The exhibition was empty apart from us and various guards quietly standing around.
The sound of the drums pulled me in, coming from a video showing a vodou ceremony in Haiti. I felt myself falling into the film, my heart merging with the drums, my body swaying with the rhythm, following the movements of the participants, curious about the actions and emotions of the celebrants… until we moved on and stepped into the shadowy depths of the main exhibition.
I find it difficult to find words for this exhibition.
The artefacts were beautiful, breathtaking, awesome. But what struck me most was that they weren’t ‘Art’, made for the sake of beauty and aesthetics (even though some were painfully beautiful) but to me they seemed filled with magic, with intent, they seemed to be made to be used in ceremony, for mediation, to create a link to another world, to communicate with the Loa, to pay homage – and as such rather were utilitarian objects than artefacts for the sake of beauty itself.
Some impressions: a sculpture of Damballa, a lounging bull-headed human encircled by a snake, a half human, half-Donkey (or horse?) holding a snake circling the chair, devil figures, shiny sequinned ritual flags, the statue of a small girl (Erzulie Freda), a beautifully carved black Madonna with child (Erzulie Dantor), ritual drums, ritual cabinets, a painted and stuffed fish, spirit vessels, sequinned skull tripod figures. Most exhibits were dimly lit, in front of blue-black background, a play of contrasts, some areas lying in complete shadow, others in half-light, with deep shadows cast across the images.
The lighting was very effective, it added to the atmosphere and the experience. At the end we were considering getting the exhibition catalogue but all the artefacts had been photographed on white background using bright lights and a lot of the mystery and beauty and glamour had been taken away, one’s mind could no longer imagine what lay in the shadows…
And some of the exhibits to me felt quite scary and gruesome. It wasn’t so much the use of skulls (I’ve never seen so many skulls in one exhibition) that made them gruesome but something indescribable.
There was a room filled with a Bizango spirit army, the queen and king seated in the front room, row after row behind them filled with warriors, all painted in black and red, a multitude of skulls sewn into the heads of the statues, some of the faces containing mirrors, some vaguely recalling fetish gasmasks, looking alien, free of emotions, yet intent. They seemed in stasis, waiting, and as if raring to go at the slightest glimpse of the queen urging them on or a soft word spoken by the king – and they would be off, to do whatever they were bidden to do.
The final room: completely filled with huge, spirit mirrors, some round, some rectangular, dusty surfaces, the mirrors adorned with painted symbols, carvings of faces, masks with lolling tongues, snakes, skeletons, chains, effigies.
The mirrors offered reflections of oneself, and when walking around, from one to the next, the room turned into a mirror cabinet, magic mirror reflecting magic mirrors behind and at the various angles of the room.
The exhibition was an intense experience, breathtaking, awesome. I have never seen an exhibition where artefacts had such a powerful magical resonance.
Here’s a walkthrough of the exhibition (commentary is in German, note that the film seems to ‘stall’ at places but it’s just the commentator rambling about the exhibit and the camera is on pause and then the film continues when he’s talked enough. )