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Gambit Weekly "Mystery and Mastery:" Voodoo Revisited

By D. Eric Bookhardt

MARCH 9, 1998:  Because the voodoo loas (or spirits) have been holding court in some of our leading museums and galleries of late, and because voodoo is a topic fraught with weirdness and strange associations, there are no doubt those among us who are wondering: What gives? Good question. But, to be perfectly frank, I have no idea. Sorry.

Even so, this CAC show answers questions of another sort by spanning some of the cultural distance between Haiti and the Big Easy. Curated by Tina Girouard, who for years has divided her time between New Orleans, Haiti and her native Acadiana, Mystery and Mastery provides insight into voodoo as an expression of the creativity of our cultural melting pot. And beyond all that, this show, like the related expo at Barristers Gallery, highlights the work of some uniquely interesting artists.

Among the more obviously mysterious of the mysteries at hand is the curious similarity of the costumes of Haiti's Rara societies to those of our own Mardi Gras Indians. Both reflect the influences of the beaded fabric designs of tribal Africa and Native America, and if this Rara-Indian connection comes as something of a revelation, it may seem even more surprising that the Yoruba (African) beadwork seen here had so much in common with Native American beadwork to start with. Perhaps it is, as they say, a matter of thinking globally while acting locally.

Tribal folk the world over share a common belief in symbolic design as well as a profoundly mythic sensibility and an intimacy with the spirits. They also possess a sense of ritual that often melds formal traditions with moments of creative spontaneity -- a mix exemplified in the voodoo rites of Afro-Caribbean cultures. After all, what is more spontaneous than the sudden unpredictable "possession" of voodoo initiates by the loas, those archetypal spirits of old Africa? Interestingly, this also evokes the ancient Greek idea of creativity as the result of a similar sort of visitation by the Muses -- the namesakes of our "museums."

It is shamanism in action, and if it sounds spooky to most people, it is divine communion to the voodooists -- a gift from the gods that expands consciousness and, like the intercession of saints, can help solve problems. Such direct experiences of spiritual communion, while alien to most of the industrial world, are common to tribal societies, cultures characterized by mythic, costuming or role-playing traditions in which the "real" lives of ordinary people and the spirit world often intermingle.

In such societies, routine formal traditions are the rule until the spirit (literally) moves them. Then the spirits and their kin party hearty as is now the case in Haiti, where it is the Rara season, a kind of Lenten Mardi Gras in which the Rara societies don beaded, sequined and rather Indian-like attire, then take to the streets in musical, artistic and spiritual competition.

In this context, the flamboyant costumes of Lionel Delpit, big chief of our own Black Feather "gang" of Mardi Gras Indians, assume the luster of a shared culture. Viewed with the handiwork of Rara, Native American and African Yoruba craftsmen, it would appear that the spirit world communicates through a shared visual language despite any differences of vocabulary or dialect.

It is this theater of spirits, men and myths that appears in the expressive metal sculpture of Gabriel Bien-Aime. An artist who "releases" his figures by chiseling and pounding them out of old oil barrels, Bien-Aime's spookily existential outlook is seen in works like Couple, in which a shanty town Adam and Eve appear ensnared in the vagaries of the visible and invisible worlds.

If Bien-Aime's rhapsodic metal work suggests a stark voodoo hybrid of Vulcan and Matisse with ironic expressionist overtones, the paintings of Edouard Duval-Carrie manage to be seductively lush in color and tone yet no less ironic in scope. A kind of voodoo dream realist whose imagery somehow looks more local than that of many local artists, Carrie's work will be examined at length in April when he has his one-man show at Stella Jones Gallery.

The colorful paintings of Ulrick Jean-Pierre, a Haitian now living in New Orleans, depict scenes from his homeland's history as if recorded from memory. Only close inspection reveals the dreamlike aura in images like his vision of the revolutionary slave leader Boukman using voodoo to bulletproof his followers.

Hybrid societies cobbled together from the ruins of colonial and tribal cultures can be chaotic, as we see in Daniel Morel's photos of Haitian chaos intermingled with creative joie de vivre. In the end, it is voodoo that underlies Haiti's creativity, as the fantastic cloth sculptures of voodoo priest Pierrot Barra readily attest. They too are cobbled together -- random bits of doll parts interwoven with ancient African loas into a brilliant new fabric. .

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