Review

Junk Yard Angel

In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st-Century Haitian Art
Fowler Museum at UCLA
Los Angeles
September 16, 2012–January 20, 2013
Glenn Harcourt

Imagine an angel of the Apocalypse: a gray-caped cross-dressing Vodou warrior saint and flasher; his head a grotesquely grinning human skull topped by a white military helmet and set off by a rusty metal nimbus and a big pink bow; his metal phallus erect and “spring-loaded” for instant action; his arms opened wide as if in greeting, yet at the same time wielding a “sword” and “shield” obviously purloined from the local junkyard.

André Eugène, Military Glory, 2010. Mixed media, height: 72 inches. Collection of the artist.

André Eugène, Military Glory, 2010. Mixed media, height: 72 inches. Collection of the artist. Photo: Leah Gordon.

This bizarre and enigmatic angel, incongruously dubbed Military Glory, was devised and constructed in 2010 by the Haitian artist André Eugène, one of the so-called Atis Rezistans (Resistance Artists)1 or Artists of the Grand Rue, working in a warren of living spaces, ateliers, junk shops, and businesses based on the recycled economics of cast-off Western disaster relief,2 all spread out in a district near the heart of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince. Even prior to the cataclysmic earthquake of January 12, 2010, the alleyways, courtyards, covered passages, and shacks of the Grand Rue looked like the set from a Bladerunner-esque sciencefiction thriller set in the urban nightmare of some dystopic future.3

Evelyne Alcide, Séisme (Earthquake), 2010. Beads, thread, polyester; 41 x 50 inches.

Evelyne Alcide, Séisme (Earthquake), 2010. Beads, thread, polyester; 41 x 50 inches. Fowler Museum at UCLA, x2010.17.4, museum purchase, the Jerome L. Joss endowment fund.

Within that environment, Eugène’s Military Glory must have appeared as one visionary apparition among many: some larger, some smaller, but all equally grotesque, equally ad hoc, and equally enmeshed in the articulation of their own bizarre environment.4 Standing alone in the Fowler Museum’s extraordinary show In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st-Century Haitian Art, the work functions as an emblem or a synecdoche, condensing within itself all the aesthetic, ideological, and religious energy of the exhibition, and of the art of contemporary Haitian Vodou. It also serves as a reminder of that art’s interpretive and contextual complexity, and (at least inferentially) of the similar complexity of other post-colonial manifestations of the sacred within a world of globalized post-modernity.5

If this sounds like a lot to ask of a single work, it is; but perhaps it is only to be expected given the density of the historical strata, the protean extravagance of religious ideology, and the contradictory richness of the aesthetic traditions and patterns of cultural appropriation within which the works displayed in the exhibition are situated. Indeed, that situation itself is further complicated by an implicit tension between the historical space of the museum (necessarily de- or re-contextualizing despite the best curatorial efforts) and the space of existence actually in extremis, the lived space of the brutalized island nation where many of these works have functioned not as emblematic or synecdochal “reminders” of interpretive complexity, but rather as channels of spiritual power and embodiments of spiritual presence.

According to the usual interpretive protocols governing Western art history, we would refer to a figure identified as representing “Military Glory” as allegorical or as an embodied concept. And indeed, Eugène’s warrior-saint may very well have such a metaphorical resonance, although clearly it seems intended to be read ironically, against the glorious grain of its title. Haiti has had numerous experiences with military occupation and oppression both domestic and foreign,6 although at the time Eugène was working on Military Glory, Haiti’s own army had been impotently (pun intended) and unceremoniously disbanded.7

But the art associated with Haitian Vodou does not operate in this kind of abstract way; rather, it tends to function more concretely: this art figures “beings” rather than “ideas” or “concepts.” In the past, such an approach might have been labeled simply “primitive” and the artifacts deriving from cultures prone to function in this concrete way consigned to museums devoted to anthropology or ethnography rather than fine art. This is not the place to rehearse the complicated and violent contest that has enveloped these strategies and ideologies of collection, taxonomy, analysis and display. However, I do think that two specific points need to be made.

First: the Fowler Museum at UCLA, which mounted the exhibition In Extremis, is among the most vibrant and engaged venues in Los Angeles for the display of the vast array of cultural production associated with the world art(s) and cultures whose academic study is the purview of the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance.8 Second, the art on display in the exhibition can only be considered “primitive” when viewed from the kind of racist, colonialist perspective that is by now (I hope) totally discredited. The sophistication and complexity of the meanings with which the Haitian artists have endowed their work with dense overlays of concrete identifications and associations can be dazzling. This strategy is perhaps most evident in contexts that are explicitly religious. But even in the case of Military Glory it is easy to see how the figure’s satirical meaning is established and enriched through oppositions of this sort: of the white helmet and the pink bow; of the skull and the phallus; of the nimbus of sanctity and the weapons of war (an opposition not unfamiliar within Christian theology and iconography).

Furthermore, as a religious image, we can see Eugène’s figure articulating at least two such oppositions. First, as our so-called “angel of the Apocalypse,” he is both the grinning and unremitting angel of death and the archangel Saint Michael who finally defeats the dragon, which is the devil.9 In both these guises, and through a complicated series of changes that incorporates further shifts in a marvelously labile identity, he becomes also a figure of Gede. Gede is a Vodou spirit whose origin can be located “at the heart of a mythopoeic matrix that has its genesis in West Africa” but who has become ubiquitous, especially in Haiti’s urban centers where, among other things, he personifies the pèp ayisyan (the Haitian people itself) in all their contradictory complexity.10  And it is as the spirit Gede that he channels the power of life through the erect and decidedly un-angelic phallus, and thus challenges the apocalyptic power of death, converting death’s skeletal grin into a leer of lustful and rampant desire.11

Technologies of the Sacred

This sounds complicated, and it is. But the underlying structure is relatively simple. Although it has often been caricatured as a dangerously primitive manifestation of transmogrified African myths and magical practices, there is little question but that Vodou is a legitimate religion or, since “religion” is an obviously loaded term in this context,12 what we can call a technology of the sacred. As such, it is a child of the horrendous Middle Passage and the unrelentingly brutal and dehumanizing exigencies of the Caribbean slave economy. It has important roots in indigenous West African cultures, for example those of the Guinea Coast and Kongo.13 Its development on the western end of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola corresponds in large measure to the pre-modern growth of the sugar economy in the eighteenth century following the cession of what was to become Haiti from Spain to France in 1697. As the eighteenth century progressed, the creolizing slave population developed its own cultural and religious practices (including Vodou) in coerced association with and in resistance to both a Francophone colonial administration and the religious institutions of French Catholicism. Despite a roughly sixty-year hiatus from any significant institutional French or Catholic presence following the successful revolution of 1791–1804,14 the imprint of that association and that resistance on the iconography, the liturgical practice, indeed on the entire belief system of Haitian Vodou remains both obvious and occult (that is, hidden “in plain sight” while in turn hiding transformed, inverted, or subverted meanings).

Pierrot Barra, Cross with Spoon and Fork, 1995. Wood, fabric, metal, plastic appliqué; height: 49 inches. Fowler Museum at UCLA, x94.76.10; Museum Purchase, Manus Funds.

Pierrot Barra, Cross with Spoon and Fork, 1995. Wood, fabric, metal, plastic appliqué; height: 49 inches. Fowler Museum at UCLA, x94.76.10; Museum Purchase, Manus Funds.

To take a relatively straightforward example: Pierrot Barra’s exquisite and superficially whimsical construction Cross with Spoon and Fork (1995). At first glance, it might resemble the ultimate in girlish “tweener” craft construction, with all the smiling dolls, sequins, bows, lace, ribbons, etc. But the actual meaning is quite different, and quite menacing. The dismembered, disarticulated dolls in fact represent the fragmentary remains of a feast (consumed with the marvelously decorated fork and spoon) provided for the lwa15 Bawon Kriminel who feasts (in a sweet inversion of name and function) on those who defy his justice. The central cross is thus not the cross of Christian redemption, despite the presence of the tiny crucifix hung with the body of the divine Redeemer, but rather the kafou crossroads associated with choice and judgment16—the crossroads, perhaps, at which Robert Johnson met the Bawon in a different guise, and made his own fateful and fatal choice. In any case, the artist’s work here is meant, literally, to serve as a repository for all the “mojo” (good luck) required to preserve the owner from a particularly nasty culinary fate: being “taken to meet the Bawon, [who’ll] turn you into a pig. He’ll use the fork and spoon to eat the meat, without a knife.”17

At its heart, Vodou, like Christianity (as well as many indigenous African religions), is essentially a monotheistic religion. That unitary God, however, is a rather distant and unconcerned if basically benevolent creator (and rather “Newtonian” in that regard).

It is the lesser spiritual beings or lwa who are charged with the mediation for human beings of the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit. These beings, who are neither precisely gods nor precisely angels, comprise a rich and varied panoply, and their activities infiltrate every aspect of the believer’s life, including even the interiority of that believer’s very being.18

Jean Claude Saintilus, Grann Brijit, 2009. Mixed media, no dimensions given. Collection of the artist. directness. Photo: Leah Gordon.

Jean Claude Saintilus, Grann Brijit, 2009. Mixed media, no dimensions given. Collection of the artist. directness. Photo: Leah Gordon.

Within the expansive “pantheon” of the lwa, pride of place has traditionally been given to Ogou, the revolutionary leader and [spiritual] founder of the Black Republic (frequently identified with Saint Jacques) and his heavenly consort, Ezili Dantò, doppelgänger of the Virgin Mary.19 It is the contention of the organizers of In Extremis, however, that over the last ten or fifteen years, a previously rather marginalized “family” of lwa centered on the Bawon Samdi (Baron Samedi) and “the ex-whore Grann Brijit,” inverted reflection of the virginal Ezili Dantò and Samdi’s “Morticia-like bride,” have assumed an ever-greater importance within the Haitian spiritual universe. This rather ghastly pair is accompanied by Samdi’s “strange brothers, the imbecilic Bawon Lakwa, who keeps the cemetery grounds; the gnomic Bawon Simityè, who knows the secrets of the dead; and the psychotic Bawon Kriminel, biting himself and wounding others,” whose decorative tableware we have already examined. Samdi, especially, appears as a spirit of considerable sexual potency; and so it is not surprising that the Bawons as a group have sired a “limitless band of capricious children, known collectively as the Gedes, who are as beloved of Vodouists as the Bawons are feared,” and who assume a bewildering number of guises, even going so far as to impersonate figures of erstwhile power and potency like André Eugène’s Military Glory.20 Bawon Samdi himself, no doubt in recognition of that potency and acknowledgment of his special position of pre-eminence, is often referred to in his role of paterfamilias, as Papa Gede (or simply as Gede).21 As one might expect, his dress is formal (if occasionally flashy), his behavior not so much, as we can see in a beautiful anonymous flag from the Fowler collection, where the Bawon is dressed in traditional top hat and morning coat, yet kicks up his bare feet in a lively dance.22 Of all the Bawons, it is certainly Samdi/[Papa] Gede who has become the tutelary spirit of contemporary Haitian Vodou.

Artist Unknown, Flag with dancing Papa Gede, second half of the twentieth century. Sequins, beds, fabric; 33 × 33.5 inches. Fowler Museum at UCLA, x87.19.

Artist Unknown, Flag with dancing Papa Gede, second half of the twentieth century. Sequins, beds, fabric; 33 × 33.5 inches. Fowler Museum at UCLA, x87.19.

Apocalypse Now

The reasons for this recent shift in Vodou’s spiritual “center of gravity,” as well as the registration of that shift in the visual arts (so carefully documented and illustrated by the organizers of In Extremis) are many: including environmental, economic, political, and cultural factors. And they have their roots deep in the country’s troubled history. Yet for all of that, it is easy to recognize a single event as focusing all those varied causes, all that complicated and tortured history into a single apocalyptically transformative event: the cataclysmic 7.0 Richter earthquake that struck the island nation at 4:53 on the afternoon of January 12, 2010—“a catastrophe beyond even the comprehension of the god of death.”23

And I saw, and behold a pale horse, and its rider’s name was Death, and Hell followed after him; and they were given power over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild bests of the earth. —Revelation 6:8

The word “apocalypse” seems to get tossed around quite a bit these days (as, most frequently and ironically at the moment, in the phrase “zombie apocalypse”) but what happened in Haiti in 2010 was truly apocalyptic in scope. With a death toll of 200,000 to 300,000 and over one million people left homeless and destitute as against an estimated current population of about 9,800,000, it really must have seemed as if a quarter of the Earth had been given over to Death.24

The enormous human and spiritual cost of that quake is graphically captured by Myrlande Constant’s beaded and sequined commemorative mural, which was commissioned by the Fowler Museum. The dead, the injured, and the mourning are everywhere. The Cathedrals of Sainte-Trinité and Our Lady of the Assumption,25 as well as numerous Vodouist shrines, lie in ruins, their priestly attendants among the dead. The devastation is presided over by a Gede Trinity standing at the kafou crossroads: Grann Brijit in her purple dress flanked by the dancing figures of Bawon Samdi and Bawon Kriminel.26

Myrlande Constant, Haiti madi 12 janvye 2010 (Haiti, Tuesday, January 12, 2010), 2012. Fabric, beads,sequins, 94 x 98 inches.

Myrlande Constant, Haiti madi 12 janvye 2010 (Haiti, Tuesday, January 12, 2010), 2012. Fabric, beads,sequins, 94 x 98 inches. Collection of the Artist (commissioned by the Fowler Museum at UCLA with funds provided by the Fay Bettye Green Fund to Commission New Work).

Just below and to the left of Bawon Samdi (almost, it seems, the object of his leering gaze) a woman stands holding a dead child. Within the catalog, although not, alas, in the exhibition, her grief is mirrored and transmogrified by Jean Claude Saintilus’s monstrous Grann Brijit (2009), a rotting, cadaverous hag wearing a white robe or shroud and purple surplice-like vestment, decorated with ferns and white daylilies, protected by a multi-colored umbrella, and carrying as if to present it, a “distressed” doll of the Cabbage Patch variety, also whiteclad and smiling stupidly through the filth and dirt that has stained her face. The thin metal cross that adorns the base gives the whole a hideous quasi- Christian resonance, although I suspect that it reads as acknowledgment rather than indictment, a reconfiguration of the traditional association between the Virgin Mary and the revolutionary Ezili Dantò.

Although Saintilus’s Grann Brijit predates (prefigures) the 2010 earthquake, she still speaks eloquently to the apocalyptic forces made concrete by the quake, located and fixed as a point in historical space and time. Likewise Jean Hérard Celeur’s Sculptural Triptych (2006), with its trio of Gede “Horsemen” or junk-yard cyborgs,27 whose grime encrusted skulls surmount rusted out motorbike frames that function both as bodies and as steeds, for the Gede are “mounted” both on and in the servitors they possess.

Jean Hérard Celeur, Sculptural triptych (detail), 2006. Metal and mixed media, height: 48 inches.

Jean Hérard Celeur, Sculptural triptych (detail), 2006. Metal and mixed media, height: 48 inches. Fowler Museum at UCLA, x2011.24.53; x2011.24.52; x2011.24.54; Gift of Marilyn Houlberg.

All three of the figures sit tense, heads thrust forward, yet also almost gracefully, thanks to the curvature of the tubular framework, on discarded and seat-less chair frames. From the would-be crotch of one rises an enormous erect and engorged phallus protectively tipped by what appear to be thin sheets of cast-off aluminum or tin.28 The struggle here between Eros and Thanatos seems obvious, and in some certainly subliminal way, Freudian as well. For, like so many of the pairs of opposed concepts and identities within the Vodou worldview, the forces of life and death exist simultaneously in uneasy conflict and reconciliation within each individual: here in the balance between an animated death and a damaged or diseased sexuality, immortal adversaries in an eternal struggle. “But who can foresee with what success or what result?”29

Gede in Post-Modernity (Slouching toward Port-au-Prince)30

As has, I hope, become abundantly clear, Vodou is a religion of enormous appropriative power. In its pre-modern history, for example, it was able to absorb beliefs, liturgy, and iconography from a dominant colonial Catholicism, at once affirming and subverting both appearances and meanings, while granting its believers the spiritual and ideological space necessary to live “invisibly” within a population overwhelmingly Catholic by every official measure.

Today, despite a vigorous diaspora, Vodou is still a faith rooted in a ravaged third world country awash in the detritus of globalized post-industrial capitalism. As such, it can support a vision where “Our Lady of Perpetual Help…Vodou’s ‘Black Madonna’ is now perceived in videos of Lady Gaga in black leather torture pants.” At the same time, the revolutionary hero Saint Jacques (aka Ougu) is now identified with, among others, Barack Obama and Sylvester Stallone in the guise of Rambo.31 This almost perverse disruption of categories, this ability to move with ease across space and time, from high culture to low, from indigenous belief to post-colonial consumer ideology is at once definitive of what has always been the structure of Vodou’s emergent belief system; reflective of the common postmodern strategy of uninhibited cultural appropriation, quotation, and citation; and consonant with that technology of the sacred that David Chidester, in a brilliant analysis of sacred technologies in post-apartheid South Africa, has termed “wild religion.”32

For Chidester, a “wild” religion is one that can function simultaneously to disrupt and to integrate a sacralized social order. It is on the one hand “untamed, undomesticated, uncultivated, unrestrained, unruly, and dangerous,” and on the other, “dynamic, natural, extraordinary, enthusiastic, ecstatic and invigorating.”33 It encompasses radical oppositions and, rather than homogenizing, holds them in a dynamic and unstable equilibrium. In the case of Vodou, this essential “wildness” has enabled the production of a scandalously heterogeneous and wonderfully creolized Haitian sacred. In the most expansive case, it might be possible to argue that this vision provides at least one strong alternative for imagining the general structure of any viable religion in post-modernity.

Edouard Duval-Carrié, Le Baron triomphant, 2011. Mixed media on aluminum; nine panels, each panel 28 × 28 inches.

Edouard Duval-Carrié, Le Baron triomphant, 2011. Mixed media on aluminum; nine panels, each panel 28 × 28 inches. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Jide Shabaka.

In the meantime, we are left with a final post-earthquake image of Edouard Duval-Carrié’s Le Baron triomphant (2011). Samdi stands on an open road in a lush landscape that suggests perhaps his ancestral home: Lavilokan, the mirrorworld of the lwa, the notional Africa at the bottom of the sea34 from which he looks down onto the rubble of a ruined city. Skeletal now and barefoot, yet dressed to the nines, he strides jauntily down the road with a walking stick in his left hand, away from us and toward the city that lies as it were “in the Valley of Death.” His right hand is raised in an ambiguous gesture. Does he bid us “Au revoir,” or, with a more dreadful finality, “Adieu?”35 Or is the gesture perhaps an offer, a suggestion that we follow, down the road, into the black night, toward whatever awaits in the ruins below?

Glenn Harcourt received a PhD in the history of art from the University of California, Berkeley. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

Footnotes

  1. For a succinct introduction to their work, accompanied by a series of amazing images, see Donald J. Cosentino, “Gede Rising,” in Donald J. Cosentino, ed., In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st-Century Haitian Art (Los Angeles: UC Press, 2012), 54–67. Photographer Leah Gordon has chronicled The Grand Rue artists in a 2008 documentary film that ran continuously as an installation at the exhibition. It is both an amazing fount of information on the state of the Grand Rue prior to the 2010 earthquake, and a work of art in its own right. Her filmed interview with the Grand Rue artist and Vodou mystic Jean Claude Saintilus is recorded in Leah Gordon’s “I’m Dead Already…I Just Haven’t Been Buried Yet,” in Cosentino, ed., In Extremis, 161–68. See also her marvelous photos of Saintilus’s work and stills of the artist taken from the video. On film, the artist seems possessed of an endless energy: energy to create, energy to love, to testify, to die, to dance as a spirit in someone else’s head. Finally, for up-to-the-minute info, see the group’s own website, http://www.atisrezistans. com/.
  2. See Katherine Smith, “Genealogies of Gede,” in Cosentino, ed., In Extremis, 95: “When one asks how this garbageheap Gede was made, a history of the city reveals itself. …The labor behind these sundry parts is alienated and deterritorialized; their use-value largely spent somewhere north of Haiti. This is the spirit of the familial dead made up of First World commodities gone bad. Only Gede’s skull was made in Haiti.” Smith’s photograph taken on site in the center of Eugène’s family courtyard in the Grand Rue (fig. 2.11), shows a somewhat different state of the piece than that displayed in the exhibition. Note both the lack of the helmet (as well as its replacement by a small cross) and the sheathing of the shock-coil penis, all of which, as well as the resonance of the site itself, might provide subtly (or not so subtly) different inflections to our reading, as Smith herself points out.
  3. See Cosentino, ed., In Extremis, figs. 1.28, 1.30, 1.34, 1.36–37, 6.1, and 6.8.
  4. The Grand Rue’s “tutelary deity” might be the 40-foot construction depicting Bawon Samdi erected by Eugène and other Atis Rezistans artists in 2002. It survived the 2010 earthquake, but fell in a tornado on July 16, 2012. Cosentino, In Extremis, 55, fig. 1.28. At the other end of the scale is a series of grotesque doll-like constructions, carved and assembled by Jean Hérard Celeur (figs. 1.31–33) none over 29 ½ inches in height.
  5. Africa would certainly provide numerous examples.
  6. In addition to bouts of internal military and police oppression, especially during the reigns of the Duvaliers, father and son, the signal incidents were certainly the American occupation of 1915–34 and the military intervention of 1994. See, for example, Laënnec Hurbon, “American Fantasy and Haitian Vodou,” in Donald J. Cosentino, ed., Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou (Los Angeles: UC Press, 1995), 181–91, esp. 181–84; this essay is also important for its background on American attitudes toward Vodou in political, religious, literary, and popular culture. As a final insult, it was hotly contested at the time whether or not pollution from unsanitary latrines employed by UN peacekeepers from cholera-endemic countries was responsible for the severe (and on-going) cholera outbreak following on the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. See Paul Farmer, Haiti after the Earthquake (New York: Public Affairs, 2011), 191–97. Farmer, the chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at the Harvard Medical School and one of the founders of the organization Partners in Health, served as a special envoy to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake under the UN mandate given to former U.S. President Bill Clinton. His account of the quake and its aftermath is a gripping public health saga and a rich meditation on the complexities of delivering health care in the Third World. The word “vodou” does not appear in the index, and religion of any sort is mentioned only in passing. The Partners in Health website, http://www.pih.org/ (accessed 11/10/12) has further information on their post-quake efforts in Haiti, as well as in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which killed more than 50, displaced 18,000 families, and may have damaged as much as 70% of this year’s food crop in Haiti.
  7. Smith, in Cosentino, ed., In Extremis, 95.
  8. The department and the museum work quite closely together; the Department of Art History, on the other hand, has its vested interest in the Hammer Museum.
  9. Revelation 20:2: And he [the angel coming down from heaven] seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him in the pit….
  10. See Cosentino, ed., Sacred Arts, 256–57, figs. 9.23 and 9.26A/B for the series of relevant transformations here; also Smith, in Cosentino, ed., In Extremis, 97 (with references to Cosentino’s essay in Sacred Arts) for the West African antecedents, plus Gede’s personification of pèp ayisyan, and hints at wider cultural implications.
  11. See, for example, Cosentino, In Extremis, 51, fig. 1.24: Gede appears in flagrante delicto in the person of his oungan (priest) Saveur Saint-Cyr. This iconography is not uncommon: compare 50, fig. 1.23, “the dapper Bawon Lakwa, stepping out in the cemetery, wearing an ultra-cool white suit” with open fly and large, dangling penis.
  12. Ostensibly, Haiti is a Catholic country; in reality, more like yes and no. The Catholic Church’s position on Vodou is perforce condemnatory: Vodou rests ultimately on baseless superstition. However, Catholicism’s own theological and ideological traditions (for example, surrounding the veneration of saints) create problems for this position, and Haiti’s religious and political history has further complicated the issue. For a wonderful pictorial example, see Cosentino, ed., Sacred Arts, 144, fig. 4.14: Gérard Valcin’s A Sick Francois Duvalier Receives the Oungans [Vodou priests] at the National Palace (1978), where a niche in the back wall frames an image of Christ Enthroned clearly copied from Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (1432), as well as the attached commentary. For evangelical Protestants seeking to establish a presence on the island, things are much clearer cut: both Catholicism and Vodou are condemned, the former as an idolatrous deviation from the Truth, the latter as purely satanic. Cosentino, ed., Sacred Arts, 194, fig. 6.12 illustrates this position at its most extreme. As for Vodouists themselves, they “lay claim to all the physical cargo of Catholicism.” See Donald J. Cosentino, “Imagine Heaven,” in Cosentino, ed., Sacred Arts, 35–38
  13. For an introduction to the relevant issues and a substantial archive of images, see the essays by Suzanne Preston Blier, “Vodun: West African Roots of Vodou,” and Robert Farris Thompson, “From the Isle Beneath the Sea: Haiti’s Africanizing Vodou Art,” in Cosentino, ed., Sacred Arts, 61–87; 91–119.
  14. The relationship between the practice of Vodou and the ideologies of revolution and despotic rule in post-revolutionary Haiti is a complex and recondite subject, made more complicated by an American invasion and occupation (1915–35) and a military intervention in 1994. But the tension, between an “Enlightened” elite more-or-less unsympathetic to Vodou (for example, the revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture) and a peasantry more committed to developing Creole traditions has been present since the time of the revolution itself. The strategies of intertwining Catholic and Vodou ideologies developed during the dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a self-trained ethnologist and a vocal spokesman for cultural nationalism, were especially convoluted. See the essay by Sidney Mintz and Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “The Social History of Haitian Vodou,” in Cosentino, ed., Sacred Arts, 144–47, and the brilliantly scathing visual commentaries illustrated in figs. 4.14 and 4.15. (These are a particularly concise and incisive treatment of the issues.) The identification of “Papa Doc” with Bawon Samdi, signaled by the dictator’s assumption of the top hat and morning coat already appropriated by the Bawon from the paraphernalia of Franco-Haitian Freemasonry, is discussed by Cosentino, In Extremis, 29–30; and compare figs. 1.3 and 1.4.
  15. Pronounced “loa.”
  16. Cosentino, In Extremis, 30–32.
  17. Pierrot Barra, quoted by Cosentino, In Extremis, 32. Bawon Kriminel, we might also note, is regarded both as a “just” judge and, in an even more terrifying guise, as captain of the zonbi, the “walking” or “differently dead” whose putative existence has haunted the perception of Vodou in the West. (See Cosentino, ed., In Extremis, 32, fig. 1.7 for a simple and horrific visual evocation.) Originally seen, perhaps, as the ultimate metaphor for the condition of slavery, the “history” of the zombie has undergone an amazing set of transformations through time and across geography. For a concise and wonderfully expansive discussion, see Cosentino, In Extremis, 32–34. For a classic first-person account, filled with anecdotal detail and the author’s own story of a zombie encounter (complete with photo), see the chapter titled simply “Zombies,” in Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (New York: Harper, 1990/2009) first published in 1938. Despite the relentlessly reproduced still image of the “keeper of the crossroads” (Cosentino, ed., Sacred Arts, 192, fig. 6.10) which tends to exaggerate its ideological infelicities, the best of the American zombie films actually rooted more-orless in Haitian tradition is the beautiful and tragic 1943 Val Lewton production I Walked with a Zombie, directed by Jacques Tourneur as a textbook exercise in the evocative power of black-and-white film composition and a wonderful meditation on the clash between rational/scientific and religious or spiritual worldviews. For a final contemporary touchstone that brings out the political dimension of the issue (the zonbi has become the will-less “slave” of the state), listen to the 1977 Afro-beat masterpiece “Zombie” by the Nigerian musician and provocateur Fela Kuti, available on Knitting Factory records, KFR-1015 (2010). http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=Q76UngzHX5Y.
  18. The metaphor regularly employed to describe this process of spirit possession is that of the lwa or gede riding its servitor.
  19. For the notion of the lwa as doppelgängers, see Cosentino, In Extremis, 26–27.
  20. Ibid., 29. Cosentino goes on to give a brilliant summary of the Upstairs/ Downstairs dialectic that relates Bawons and Gedes. But note that these positions are to a certain extent reversible: “Bawon may flash his phallus, Gede may don a top hat or pose in Masonic gear.” (See notes 25 and 26, below.)
  21. The persona of Papa Gede was not surprisingly appropriated by Papa Doc, President for Life François Duvalier. Compare Cosentino, In Extremis 28 and 29, figs. 1.3 and 1.4. Bawon Samdi’s formal outfit, as well as many of his characteristic accoutrements, is drawn from the rituals and iconography of Franco-Haitian Freemasonry. For anyone who has read Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2011), the conflation of Catholic and Masonic culture may well seem the high water mark of Vodou’s appropriative power.
  22. The imag is at first glance very simple, and yet the way the dancing legs echo the crossed bones gives it powerful Jean Claude Saintilus, Grann Brijit, 2009. Mixed media, no dimensions given. Collection of the artist. directness.
  23. Cosentino, In Extremis, 70, relating the testimony of the oungan (priest) Sauveur Saint-Cyr, as given originally to the late Marilyn Houlberg. The 2010 earthquake is often simply referred to as bagay la (that awful thing). Note also Cosentino’s trenchant commentary: “In this vacuum of reason and dearth of explanation, only the artists remained to bear witness.”
  24. The British relief organization OXFAM lists over 220,000 killed, 300,000 injured, 1 million left homeless. http://www. oxfam.org/en/haitiquake. The CIA World Fact Book puts the death toll at over 300,000 against a population (in 2012) of less than 10 million. https://www.cia.gov/ library/publications/the-world-factbook/ geos/ha.html#top.
  25. See Donald Cosentino’s stark photographic record, In Extremis, 68, fig. 1.42 (the flattened presidential palace) and 69, fig 1.43 (the ruins of the Cathedral with the shattered western rose window). As Paul Farmer explains throughout his relief narrative, the quake substantially reduced the numbers of exactly those elites (government, medical, public health, business, etc.) that should have worked hardest to facilitate recovery.
  26. See Patricia A. Polk, “Remember You Must Die! Gede Banners, Memento Mori and the Fine Art of Facing Death,” Cosentino, 139–41. Note especially the observation, “Even those [Gede] for whom death is a party must bow down before the implications of the epitaph… Look at the suffering… (141).”
  27. Cosentino compares them to escapees from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, ibid., 56.
  28. It is perhaps tempting to see the thin metal sheeting as some kind of armor or protection (a condom?) despite its evident protective inadequacy. The reference to AIDS would in any case be hardly fortuitous; remember the original stigmatization of Haitian men as a group particularly “at risk.” This issue is tackled head-on by the Grand Rue artist Papa Da (Alphonse Jean Junior) in his 2009 construction Dr. Hypocrite (Cosentino, In Extremis, 66, fig. 1.40) described by the artist as follows: “Hypocrite is a doctor who never takes care of himself. He warns his patients to use a condom, but he never uses them himself. So he gets HIV and learns his lesson. Now he must use a condom forever in the afterlife.” On the importance of the penis or zozo in Celeur’s Triptych (and in the iconography of the apocalyptic Gede generally), see Cosentino, In Extremis, 56–57, touching base with authorities on the unruliness of the phallus as diverse as the Greek philosopher Plato and the English comedian Russell Brand: having a penis is “like being chained to a maniac.” Finally, see Leah Gordon, “Gede: The Poster Boy for Vodou,” in Cosentino, In Extremis, 108–109 and fig. 3.8: a commentary on André Eugène’s Doktor zozo (2008) in which Eugène himself equates an erect penis with “the truth of a person’s desires,” which “exposes the [notional] Puritanism of the slave owners.”
  29. This is the question posed at the very end of Freud’s rumination. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: W.W. Norton, 1961), 112.
  30. See Cosentino, In Extremis, 75. “Slouching toward Port-au-Prince” derives from the final line of the William Butler Yeats poem “The Second Coming” (1919), an apocalyptic meditation on the First World War.
  31. Ibid., 26. For Bawon Samdi as Darth Vader(!), see Cosentino, ed., Sacred Arts, 302, fig. N.1.
  32. David Chidester, Wild Religion: Tracking the Sacred in South Africa (Berkeley and Los Angeles: UC Press, 2012).
  33. Ibid., 2–3.
  34. Cosentino, In Extremis, 25. Since Haiti is in fact virtually deforested today, this is clearly on some level an [Edenic] “garden of the mind.”
  35. Ibid., 75.
Further Reading