Catching the Spirits

Pierrot Barra presides over the Pharmacie Magique in Port-au-Prince's Iron Market, behind a row of stalls selling old American magazines. One airless afternoon last spring Barra, a Vodou priest, sat under the botanica's corrugated tin awning on a cane chair, dressed in dark blue jeans and a T-shirt, without shoes. All around him were piles of brilliant-colored satin cloths; sequined flags; powders; candles; striped maracas; and bottles, some containing dolls' heads or plastic skulls, others encrusted with glittering sequins and beads. A man approached and, after consulting with Barra, bought two flags and a length of green pompom trim, which he planned to sew together to make a ceremonial cassock. A teenage boy who was helping Barra picked up a tiny cardboard coffin encased in blue felt and shiny paper, created for placement on an altar to Gede, the family of celebratory spirits of the cemetery who are associated with death, sex, and children. The boy took off the lid to reveal a satin-shrouded Barbie doll. "She's dead," he cheerfully pronounced in Creole, offering the coffin for sale to a foreigner as a souvenir.

In a closetlike storage area, Barra kept some larger objects, which he fashioned from refuse and items found in the market. These were made of dolls and their various dissected body parts, common Catholic household saints in the form of pictures or small plastic statues, car headlights, rope, fabric scraps, and assorted bric-a-brac. The disparate materials were bundled in spangled satin or mounted on large pieces of fabric-wrapped cardboard.

Although Barra, a businessman of considerable acumen, began making these works for the rituals of oungans and manbos (priests and priestesses), he now sells many of them to foreign art collectors and dealers. "I don't mind people using them for decoration," he blithely explained through an interpreter during an interview in Port-au-Prince. "You would have to baptize them for it to have any spiritual meaning. Without the ceremony, they're just art."

Some examples of Barra's bizarre assemblages are now on view at the Center for the Fine Arts, part of the glorious, immensely engaging exhibition Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Like most of the other ceremonial objects and Vodou-inspired paintings and sculpture in the show, Barra's found-material conglomerations were created as representations of Vodou spirits. Some are celebratory and strangely elegant. Others, which sport dolls with dirty faces fastened to a cross, their heads covered with satin hoods or with blood-stained lips, are truly disturbing to behold.

"Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou" showcases a broad spectrum of the accouterments of the Vodou religion in a fascinating display that reveals much of this art's aesthetic complexity and spiritual power. Donald J. Cosentino, one of two curators of the show (which originated at UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History), refers to Vodou as a practice that, in a sense, has always been postmodern and is reflected in an artistic expression that has historically appropriated far-flung components. Since the Creole religion developed among the half-million African slaves of what was then called St. Domingue, the ceremonial artifacts of Vodou and the art it inspires have endured. Haiti's history of colonization, independence, imperialistic invasion, poverty, repression, and resistance is manifested in the Vodou rituals' incorporation of elements ranging from French military flags, Kongo medicine bundles, Catholic crucifixes, and Masonic shawls to Cabbage Patch dolls, Darth Vader action figures, and Dove soap.

"Vodou is the Haitian way of life," says Aboudja, a priest, in a short video about the history of the religion playing on a monitor on the museum's second floor. "It is what keeps this country alive, what keeps us going." The exhibition begins with an eclectic selection of illustrative paintings that depict important episodes in Haiti's history. Serge Moleon Blaise's naively realist Conversion of the Indians shows the native Taino Indians under military guard, being converted by Catholic priests. Dieudonne Caiman's dark, expressionist Ceremony at the Bois Caiman shows the mythic ceremonial sacrifice of a pig by an African priestess in preparation for the uprising led by the slave Boukman, which would lead to Haiti's independence in 1804. The Anti-Superstition Campaign, by Eddy Jacques, documents the destruction of Vodou temples and objects by leaders of the Catholic Church and the Haitian military in 1940. An outstanding oil on masonite painting, The Crucifixion of Charlemagne Peralt for Freedom, by famed painter Philome Obin, is a beautifully composed tableau depicting the executed peasant leader as a Christlike martyr. Miami-based Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrie's Mardi-Gras at Ft. Dimanche is a fantastic vision of the Duvalier family inside a torture chamber, looking like death spirits, with Jean-Claude Duvalier in a wedding dress, a reference to rumors that he is gay. Several bloody, severed hands are nailed to the wall of the cell.

Visitors pass through a mirrored archway to the next section of the exhibition. Display cases here hold altar objects typically associated with the different Vodou deities, or lwas -- a parade of personalities who act as mediators between God and human beings. The Gedes and their chief Bawon Samdi are represented by a velvet top hat, a coffin bottle with a skull inside like those sold by Barra, Wayfarer sunglasses, a picture of St. Gerard (the Bawon's Catholic alter ego), and a wooden cane -- a spirit wand -- carved in the shape of an erect penis. Prior to installation, a condom was placed over the tip of this cane and another one in the show by priests in Haiti, in reaction to the AIDSepidemic. A display of articles intended for the ultra-feminine Ezili Freda, the mistress of love, includes a bottle of her favorite perfume Anais Anais and statues and pictures of madonnas. Her wilder counterpart Ezili Danto is personified by a black doll in a glittery dress and red do-rag, a picture of a black madonna, and a papier-mache pig representing those used in ritual sacrifice.

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Judy Cantor