This was an exhibition that was new to me at the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. The warning that part of the exhibition might cause discomfort or surprise spurred my curiosity to take a look. As it turned out, it was a thought-provoking and educational display on the origin, history and the practice of Vodou.
Vodou came to the New World from West Africa and took root in Haiti blending with local religious beliefs. The first group of exhibits were artifacts inspired by Vodou. On display was a Vodou shrine in the size of a small closet where Vodou could be practiced at home.
A wall was dedicated to the time-line of Vodou in Haiti, where colonizers who were Catholics denounced Vodou as superstition and considered it to be evil and barbaric. This drove Vodouists into clandestine practice and they formed their secret societies.
A central belief in Vodou is the interconnection of the spiritual world after death and the world we live in. This is achieved through Lwa, which are special spirits also manifesting the presence of the Great Met (the Vodou god). Lwa can appear in many shapes and forms. This one is an example:
Vodouists communicates more easily with Lwa and when they do, they enter into a state commonly known as “possession”. The vodouists do not suffer and they return to their own selves afterwards.
On display were drums and artifacts used in special ceremonies and a video played the dancing, chanting and trance-like condition of vodouists to the rhythm of drums.
The exhibits looked more menacing towards the end of the exhibition, as they represented the darkness of persecution by the colonists and the struggle by vodouists for freedom and independence . Vodou also became synonymous with the fight against slavery at the time.
Haiti became independent in 1804 and Vodou was officially recognized in Haiti in 2003.
One of the goals of the exhibition was to dispel the notion that Vodou was associated with curses and the popular image of a Vodou doll that people poke with needles. In this exhibition, I saw a lot of parallel between Vodou and many other indigenous folk beliefs all over the world. Believers were persecuted in the name of religion by colonizers or invaders in human history. It is unfortunate that political domination is linked hand in hand with the attempt to eradicate the collective meanings of a culture that has become the subordinate. Would it not be a better world if we were more tolerant of differences?
For more Thursday Specials this week, please visit Paul’s blog Lost in Translation.