Museum review by Zach Long
One of the first things you learn upon entering the Field Museum’s latest exhibit is that “voodoo” is not a real word. The Haitian Vodou (pronounced vah-DOO) religion takes its name from the African words “vodu” and “vodun”, which refer to invisible powers. Vodou: Sacred Power of Haiti attempts to explain the realities of the ancient spiritual tradition by displaying a collection of more than 300 objects associated with the practice of Vodou.
The exhibit begins with a series of history lessons scrawled on the gallery’s walls, documenting the origins of Vodou in Haiti, when indigenous traditions fused with the practices of African slaves who were brought to the region by the French and Spanish. Vodou became a way for Haitians to preserve their heritage, uniting a population that was forced into slavery by European conquerers. It was also a driving force behind the successful Haitian slave revolution of 1804, which made Haiti the first independent black nation while simultaneously isolating the country for almost a century.
The U.S. occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934 was responsible for many of the negative depictions of Vodou that made their way into Hollywood films and popular culture. Movies popularized racist tales of devil-worshiping priests and enchanted voodoo dolls that could be used to inflict pain. In reality, Vodouists believe in a single god, called the Gran Mét (grand master) that can exist in many forms. The separate forms of this deity are spirits called Iwa and each represents a specific element or characteristic, like water or wisdom.
In the exhibit’s main room, attendees can walk through a sea of artifacts, most of which are displayed openly instead of being placed in glass cases. Visitors can view detailed terra cotta sculptures, sequin-covered flags, handmade urns, ceremonial drums and ornate mirrors which are believed to be conduits to the spirit world. Perhaps the most striking objects on display are the large Bizango statues made from cloth, wood, bone and metal which represent various Iwa and are used in Vodou ceremonies.
Amid the artifacts are stations where visitors can view testimonials from practicing Vodouists and learn more about the spiritual meaning of the various pieces and what it’s like to be a modern practitioner of the religion. Several videos of Vodou ceremonies are on display, including excerpts of a eight-hour ritual performed in Montreal in 2012 that depicts participants becoming possessed by a snake spirit.
While the items on display are certainly impressive, the exhibit itself doesn’t do a great job of giving context to the objects it contains. It wasn’t until I spoke with one of the exhibit’s curators that I learned that many of the most interesting objects on display originate within secret societies practicing Vodou in Haiti. Many practitioners do not perform Vodou ceremonies openly, so secret societies that meet at night provide a venue for some of the religion’s most sacred practices. Objects like the Bizango and the giant mirrors are a part of these secret ceremonies, but it’s easy to come away from the exhibit with the impression that these artifacts are part of everyday Vodou life.
Vodou: Sacred Power of Haiti does an admirable job of dispelling the myths that surround the misunderstood religion, providing an authentic representation of life as a modern Vodouist. It’s a shame that the exhibit’s curators didn’t extend the same comprehensive approach to explaining the beautiful pieces on display. If you’re at the Field Museum, this traveling exhibit is worth a look, but you should be prepared to do a bit of independent research in order to fully understand what you see.
By Zach Long