Do not visit the exhibition 'Vodou, art and mysticism from Haiti' at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. I did, on November 8th 2008, and still I sleep uneasily.
Do not visit that exhibition when it moves to the Museum of World Culture in Göteborg, Sweden. The exhibition starts innocently enough, presenting Vodou's most acceptable, folkloric face. It starts politically correct enough, appealing to the emancipatory meaning of Enlightenment in presenting the Haitian religion as a weapon in the struggle against French and American colonial domination. It starts nicely enough, in an Apollonian mode, presenting the Lwa - Vodou's spirits - as the contemporary equivalents of the gods of ancient Greece, exotic and slightly naive, weird but safe. But then you turn a corner, and through a dimly lit passageway you are led to two darkened rooms which reveal a world which has nothing to do with our solid, daylight-filled and clear-headed world. You are led into the ominous world of the secret societies known as Bizango. There, your nerves will start to fray, as did mine.
Do not visit the exhibition when it appears at the Etnologisches Museum in Berlin. Some paragraphs in Alfred Métraux' classic 1959 ethnography Voodoo in Haiti should provide ample warning:
"The people designated by [the name Bizango] are sorcerers who (...) have joined secret societies whose members, united by the crimes they have committed together, give each other help. The [Bizango] derive material benefits from membership - wealth and all its trappings - a fine house, luxurious cars and a trip to France - though these considerations are secondary to the satisfaction of returning evil for evil, and of 'eating people' during nocturnal expeditions. (...)
Countless stories can be heard about [the Bizango] really belong to the province of the fairy tale, but it seems likely that certain people sometimes do band together, in secret, to practice sorcery or to use the popular belief in sorcerer societies to sow terror around them. Proof that the matter is not wholly a question of superstition is to be found in the passports of the [Bizango], confiscated in humfo [voodoo temples] or handed over to curés by repentant voodooists.
The most sinister fantasies of a kind sure to capture popular imagination have been centered on the 'red sects'. Hideous or grotesque aspect, weird dress, obscene and bloody ceremonies, gratuitous cruelty, weird dress, obscene and bloody ceremonies, gratuitous cruelty - there is no conceivable trait that is not attributed to them provided it is sufficiently repulsive and odious. (...) "
And please do not visit it in Bremen's Überseemuseum, in Germany, as the three rooms in the exhibition dedicated to the Bizango societies contain many frightening artifacts, especially paquets, statues and mirrors (see them on this excellent Flickr slideshow).
The paquets ('parcels') are a special kind of talisman, made of wallets or bottles (sometimes big onion-shaped bottles) wrapped in cloth or silk studded with sequins and adorned with frills. Some of the Bizango paquets on displays had human skulls as stoppers. These paquets, which contain the flesh of a sacrificed 'curly cock' mixed with vegetable substances, have the power of 'heating' or exciting the Lwa; but they also have the power of raising goosebumps on the skin of the museum's visitors.
There is a veritable army statues on display. They are life-size, made of black and red cloth filled up with unknown materials, and adorned with ropes, metal chains and little oxidation-stained mirrors. The statues represent the spirits which rule the Bizango sects, and especially the trinity of Kaifou, Gran Bwa and Simityè (Crossroads, Great Forest and Cemetery). Their eyes - most white, others red, some reflecting - rest heavily on the visitor to the exhibition. They rest all the more heavily when the realization dawns on the visitor that human skulls are sown into the head of these statues; thereafter, their eyes seem to be neither seeing nor dead, neither living nor blind.
But the mirrors on display are the most disconcerting of all exhibits. They are ornate, 19th century mirrors, stained by oxidation, weathered by the passage of time. Their gilded frames are elaborated with rusty chains and sinister woodcuts of snakes and daemons. At the top of a huge circular mirror, a primitive Lucifer winks to the visitor. These mirrors are used to call forth the spirits of Bizango; their reflective surface forms the permeable boundary between this world and a nightmarish Otherworld. As philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty noted, mirrors "...change things into spectacle and spectacle into things; myself into another and another into myself...". I trembled at seeing myself in these mirrors, sensing they dissolved the boundaries between self and Bizango.
In his ethnography of Vodou, Métraux writes that - when seen up close - the religion of Haiti does not have the morbid and hallucinatory character which books have given it. That black legend, writes Métraux "..belongs to the colonial period when it was the fruit of hatred and fear. Man is never cruel and unjust with impunity: the anxiety which grows in the minds of those who abuse power often takes the form of imaginary terrors and demented obsessions. He treated him like a beast of burden but dreaded the occult power which he imputed to him. And the greater the subjugation of the Black, the more he inspired fear; that ubiquitous fear which shows in the records of the period and which solidified in that obsession with poison which, throughout the eighteenth century, was the cause of so many atrocities. Perhaps certain slaves did avenge themselves on their tyrants in this way - such a thing is possible and even probable - but the fear which reigned in the plantations had its source in deeper recesses of the soul: it was the witchcraft of remote and mysterious Africa which troubled the sleep of the people in 'the big house'."
The exhibition 'Vodou, art and mysticism from Haiti' proves that Voodoo - or the Bizango cult in any case - does have a hallucinatory and morbid character. The sleep of the people in 'the big house' was not troubled for nothing.
I still sleep uneasily.