Voodoo: Mysterious and misunderstood

The Pwen Ibo, shown above, are said to possess the power of ancestral spirits, and offer protection. (Photo: Canadian Museum of Civilization)

What & where: Vodou, at the Canadian Museum of Civilization

When: to Feb. 23, 2014

You can’t blame Hollywood for the things you think you know about voodoo.

Hollywood, with help from other overly imaginative corners, may serve up a pop culture stereotype of the “primitive” religion, but they can’t make you believe it. They can’t put a spell on you, as much as they want you to believe that spells — preferably evil spells — are what voodoo is all about.

“This is why this is a perfect subject for an educational institution,” says Mauro Peressini, the co-curator of the new exhibition of voodoo at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau. “People don’t know a lot about voodoo. . . What Hollywood did, and books, is to focus on the negative, the magic to do bad things to people. If you do a bad thing to someone, it’s not voodoo. Voodoo is there to protect, to heal, but not to attack people.”

Don’t come to the museum expecting to see the iconic “voodoo doll” full of vengefully stuck pins. It’s another entertainment fiction.

More than 300 artifacts make up the exhibition, which continues at the museum all the way to February, 2014. They are often packed in tightly, enough to be slightly overwhelming by times. A legion of “Iwa,” or gods, appear in rough sculptures, their features dark and exclamative. It’s a ghoulish procession and that it’s real, and not a film fancy, gives it power.

Two Bizango fighters, from Vodou, at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau. (Photo courtesy the museum)

The exhibition begins with the history of voodoo, reaching way back to a date as loaded with conflicting meanings as a date in history can be, 1492, when the Spanish arrived and changed everything. Centuries later voodoo — or vodou, as the museum spells it, citing an emerging convention — is still practiced in Haiti. After the earthquake in 2010 a number of “voodooists” were murdered, Peressini says, for having failed to protect the people from catastrophe.

The artifacts are on loan from the collection of a Swiss woman, Marianne Lehman, who moved to the tiny Caribbean nation and amassed a vast collection. Lehman created a foundation to care for the thousands of pieces and keep them in Haiti. Two other founding members, the Haitian professors Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique and Didier Dominique, are co-curators of the Gatineau exhibition.

“This is one of most important collections in the world on voodoo,” Peressini says.

Not all of the artifacts are for religious use. Some are pieces of art inspired by the religion. There’s a tall, thin carving of a mermaid, the god Lasirèn, the consort to Agwe, and it’s graceful and romantic. She’s cut from a long, twisted root or branch, and her body seems to rise out of the wood into a sinuous dance with the dry, wrinkled tendrils.

Overhead are banners or flags, thickly woven and a whole lot like medieval tapestries from a crusading Europe. One banner even shows a white knight, a Christian saint who is only the visual representation of Agwe, one of hundreds of Iwa celebrated by voodooists. Another shows the madonna, the representation of Èzili Freda, “who personifies love, beauty, sensuality, and a taste for luxury and worldly pleasures.”

All of this is presented in the voices of those who practice voodoo. The museum stresses in print and in interviews that the exhibition is wholly in the words and voices and actions of its practitioners, “unhindered by outside interpretation.” A neat way to sidestep controversy, that, in these days of religious hypersensitivities and skittish cultural bureaucracies.

Vodou is presented with music, too. A steady drumbeat fills the rooms of the exhibit. It’s primordial, hypnotic. It illuminates all that it surrounds, and creates a physical bond between the viewer and the artifacts, and with the people seen in several videos.

The videos show voodoo ceremonies, held not in temples but in open, public spaces, in the plain places of daily life. Voodooists call upon the gods to cure illness, to protect the people from bad fortune. There are clips of voodooists who have been possessed by any one of the Iwa.  They twist and flail and roll on the ground or in the water, as others watch over them. The ceremonies can go on for hours, though edited here for the exhibition.

There are skulls, lots of skulls, and all those bony eye sockets staring at you takes some getting used to.  “It’s not morbid. It’s not negative,” Peressini says. “Having skulls or human remains means that you are close to the spirit of this ancestor, so you can dialogue with him or her, and profit from his knowledge and wisdom.”

Near the end of the exhibition there’s an invitation to reflect, and even to share, on provided computers, what you’ve learned about voodoo. On the wall are two video boxes showing voodooists, a middle-aged woman and elderly man, who share a mournful expression that verges on tears. How to react to these plaintive faces isn’t clear, but after taking in the hundreds of artifacts and plentiful text boards and learning so much about voodoo, this enforced sadness seems unnecessary and heavy-handed, like a chastisement.

More rewarding is the room of mirrors, where viewers can reflect and be reflected. A half-dozen large mirrors are elaborately carved with voodoo figures and shapes. They are ornate and macabre, and to be among them is thrilling. This circle of wood and glass embraces both the spiritual and artistic expression of a religion long misunderstood, and persecuted.

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