Catching the Spirits

In the next room a fascinating display of ceremonial art includes several drums, whose rhythms are the heartbeat of Vodou. One is painted with an intricate cubist pattern, others are carved to reveal human faces or serpents. Bottles -- for spirit offerings and divination -- and medicine bundles, or "Kongo packets," rival the best surrealist objects in their composition. Pairs of scissors and small round mirrors are bound with rope to a square-sided bottle. Other fanciful bottles are covered in elaborate combinations of sequins or beads. The Kongo packets are talismans, round-bottomed bundles out of which rise long stems, symbolizing the umbilical cord. Some of those included here are fancily bedecked with ribbons and have two "arms" extending from the base of the stem, giving them the look of elegant dancing ladies.

Sequined flags are probably the best-known form of this art. Here a selection of the banners, embroidered with symbols of the lwas, are elegantly displayed on black walls. In the next gallery an exhibit dedicated to the roots of Vodou will give the uninitiated a better understanding of the religion's origins and visual references. Religious objects from Africa, Catholic iconography, books and cards used by European mystics, and Masonic vestments are included here along their counterparts from Haiti.

The exhibition moves from its more ethnographic focus to the work of artists whose personal vision has been inspired by Vodou beliefs. Hector Hyppolite, the Haitian naive painter who was a favorite of Andre Breton in the Forties, was a Vodou priest whose works combined lively images of lwas and Catholic saints. A large selection of his oil-and-masonite paintings is included in the show. In Magique Noire, impish spirits rise out of two large vases. A grinning gargoyle holds up a table on which two winged manbos have laid out cards, candles, a cross, and bottles of rum.

Georges Liautaud was trained as a blacksmith, and he made crosses for graves in his native Croix-des-Bouquet, just outside Port-au-Prince. Rather than Christian crucifixes, his crosses are iron manifestations of the veves -- cosmographic symbols of the spirits that are traced on the ground during Vodou ceremonies. Liautaud, who inspired what is now a largely commercial iron art industry in Croix-des-Bouquet, went on to make images of the spirits from iron scraps. The gentle but powerful works displayed here are vibrantly alive. They alone would be reason to visit this exhibition.

Edouard Duval-Carrie created a series of sculptures especially for this show. An early version of these Spirit Catchers was created for the first Vodou festival in Benin in 1993, where they were stuck into the beach so they could be seen from the water. Now cast in polished bronze and installed in the gallery, Duval-Carrie's modern-day spirits seem to undulate, flirting with passersby.

The exhibition ends with a realistic re-creation of a Vodou temple and three altars. A beautiful mural of Ezili Danto as a black madonna with stigmata on her face was painted on the temple wall in delicate shades of yellow, blue, red, and black by Rara Kuyu, a Haitian muralist who now lives in Miami. Three video monitors show footage from ceremonies in Haiti, filling the room with heart-pumping music and chanting. Watching this manic, moving family celebration in which practitioners dance, drink, and take on the personalities of different spirits, it is evident that the true art of Vodou is an art of performance. This view is enhanced by a series of incredible photos taken by Phyllis Galembo, which capture people possessed, or "mounted," by the spirits. One photo shows a woman sitting on a bed, dressed in red as an alluring Ezili Danto. Another is a portrait of a man in a straw hat -- Bawon Kriminel -- who stares defiantly at the camera. He holds a sword poised above a hard-boiled egg on a plate filled with feathers. According to several Haitian museumgoers who were viewing the show last week, the act of plunging a knife into a hard-boiled egg means death to the object of the ritual.

"Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou" is designed to debunk the Afro-Haitian religion's widespread Hollywoodesque reputation as scary black magic. And the show gives Vodou the respect it deserves. But some works, such as the photo of Bawon Kriminel, and one of the aforementioned macabre assemblages by Barra, do allude to "serving the spirits with both hands," the term for using Vodou with evil intentions as well as good ones. Some Haitian visitors to the CFA have objected to what they see as the inclusion of a negative representation of Vodou. The large local Haitian population makes the exhibit a particularly relevant -- and long awaited -- event for Miami. Even at the show's September 19 opening, members of the Haitian community began to weigh in on a show about which they had an educated opinion. That discussion will undoubtedly continue after the exhibition ends.

Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Through December 1 . Center for the Fine Arts, 101 W Flagler St; 375-3000.

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