“Vodoun/Vodounon: Portraits of Initiates,” the Cantor Arts Center has literally been blessed. On the opening night of the exhibition last Wednesday, Oct. 13, local Bay Area Vodoun practitioners blessed the space, enacting an hour-long ceremony outside the museum. This display of religious significance is in line with the larger exhibition, which features the Belgian photographer Jean-Dominique Burton’s photographic series from 2007 of initiates into the Vodoun religion of the Republic of Benin in West Africa.
The exhibition features 25 photographic diptychs that pair black-and-white portraits of Vodounon, the priest and priestesses of the Vodoun religion, with color photographs of their consecrated shrines. In these pairings, the photographic series provides an intimate look into the aesthetic beauty and sacred significance of both practioner and religious object. Taken together, we come to understand the Vodoun religion as one of both people and practice.
Before entering the exhibition gallery itself, the first diptych of “Vodoun/Vodounon: Portraits of Initiates” makes an appearance in the Cantor Arts Center’s monumental entrance hall. In this lobby, a photograph of the elderly Combethe Andee Doulolougba/Dan Heke Cotonou is paired with her sacred shrine, both large-scale hanging prints on linen. The considerable scale of this pairing gives the Vodounon and her shrine a force that is larger than life.
Though much smaller, four similar hanging-linen life-size prints comprise the center space of the exhibition gallery’s interior. Along the space of the walls, even smaller photographic pairings round out the exhibition’s display. In the varying sizes of these paired photographs, we encounter the Vodounon and their shrines as both grandiose emblems of religious potency and intimate portraits of religious earnestness.
Two particular striking pairs of Vodounon and their shrines are of note. A stunning portrait of Allognikin Touna De Souza Marcelle/Shango-Yalode Pahou is paired with the Vodounon’s shrine, comprised of ceramic pots, bowls, mortar and cloth. The Vodounon sitter’s solemn beauty shines in the medium of black-and-white photography, which highlights the contrast between the figure’s dark skin and her white headdress. Interestingly, this Vodounon’s shrine, with its anthropomorphic shape and clothed top, bears strong resemblance to the head-dressed Vodounon herself. In a similar manner, the photograph next to this series features Odjouman Monlade/Chango Pobe, whose patterned headpiece visually rhymes with the dynamic patterned cloth of his shrine. In the similarity between religious practitioner and religious object, the inextricable connection between communicator and conduit with the gods is made explicit.
Further, the thorough wall labels throughout the space of the gallery elucidate the various tenants of the Vodounon religion. It is through one of these wall labels that we come to understand the significance of Mawu-Lisa as the god of the Vodoun religion, comprised of the Mawu female principle and Lisa male principle. As a result, one sees the near-equal number of Vodoun priestesses and priests pictured here as a reflection of the equal reverence for the feminine and masculine in the Vodoun religion.
From these wall labels, we also learn about important figures of the Vodoun religion, such as Sakpata, Shango, Dan and Ogou. After reading about these legends, significant aspects of the shrines come in to focus, such as the centrality of materials from the earth, as well as metallurgy.
In the vast display of Vodoun shrines on view in the exhibition, we come to see these objects as bricolage of a wide-ranging variety of materials, including jewelry, candles, feathers, shells, books and cigarettes. Moving past aesthetic beauty, these are not simply art objects as we are perhaps normally accustomed, but also highly charged symbols of spiritual worship.
The question becomes, with what does one walk away from these portraits of religious initiates and their objects of worship? In describing the exhibition’s stakes, curator Barbara Thompson writes: “The Western myth of ‘voodoo’ – as it has been widely popularized by Hollywood films and other media – has painted a dark vision of a world filled with occult practices, black magic, zombies, voodoo dolls and witch doctors. Far removed from this Westerner misconception, the Vodoun religion places primacy on calmness, introspection and order.” In our encounter with these intimate portraits of “calmness, introspection and order,” we develop a reverence and respect for the practitioners and their objects.
As another helpful wall text describes, the religion of Vodoun is “an ever-growing pantheon of new and foreign spirits,” which, as a result of the African Diaspora, has circulated throughout the world to Benin, Togo, Ghana, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the United States. Practiced by over 60 million people, Vodoun is a diverse and vibrant set of religious practices, and the photographs in “Vodoun/Vodounon: Portraits of Initiates” do well to bring this reality to light.
“Vodoun/Vodounon: Portraits of Initiates” runs until March 20, 2011.