If you go to the "Treasures of Voodoo" exhibition at the Fondation Cartier, don't expect to enter a world of Haitian spells and possession and incantatory firelight dervishes. This is a serious show that explores the art and and symbols of African vodun, a religious cult that sprang from the west coast of Africa. This cult is mainly represented here by artifacts from Benin, which lies between Togo and Nigeria.
This isn't to say the show isn't scary. It is. But not for any clichéd depiction of possession or accursed unfortunates. What makes "Vodun" both arresting and disturbing is the immediacy of the spiritual that these objects evoke, and the unforgiving violence of their images. And also their palpable "thereness." These statues, often formed from driftwood or assembled from found objects, have all of the brutality of postmodern works that depict an unforgiving world, but they are not comments on the thing but the thing itself. They bare themselves before an unseen universe, the embodiment of feeling or emotion. And not little emotions either, but primal ones: rage, fear, despair, contempt...even, though less frequently, love.
This exhibition marks the tenth anniversary of the death of a connoisseur of the art of voodoo, Jacques Kercharche, who advised several French art institutions on the importance of Vodun statuary and who himself was a noted collector of these works. Although these objects have an anthropological significance as records of the beliefs of certain African peoples, since Kercharche himself considered them aesthetic works as well as religious ones, you can appreciate them for their powerful presence as art.
They are immediately accessible, and remarkably contemporary. Our art nowadays evokes other art as it emphasizes the cruelty of the world around us and its cruel inhabitants. Here, the works are both elegant and feral, in the manner of Primitive Art, certainly, but you can feel the strength of the belief behind them. They speak for themselves; they don't hold an imaginary conversation with other artists, but with the spiritual world, the unseen world, the powerful world that needs supplication of some sort.
But first you have to get past the installation, which for all of its good intentions, rather overwhelms the works. On the first floor, the sculptures are placed before flat-front representations of houses, like a film set from a Western that only gives you the front and not the whole of a fictitious Main Street. But here you end up first noticing the sandbags and the planks - the artifice - rather than the statues - the exhibition. It's not until you get up close to these statues that you can begin to appreciate them apart from the curatorial good intentions about presenting these statues in a facsimile of how they would have been displayed in "real life." But an exhibition isn't real life, at least such a one that led to the creation of these works. Still, once you get past that heavy-handedness, you can begin to appreciate these statues for their primal power. (A different problem surfaces in the lower gallery, where far too many statues are displayed far too close to each other, as if the curators couldn't choose among them or underestimated the particular power of each individual statue.)
Several types of statue, known as bocio, function as intermediaries between the visible world and the world of the voodoo deities. They're made of wood, bones, shells and other materials, often in disturbing combinations such as the jaws of a reptile enclosing in a skeletal chomp the wooden torso or head (sacrifice or sign of submission or both).
Some of these bocio are bound by cords or chains, with additional materials pinned to the work, depending on the emotion the statue evokes. Others feature piercings by pegs or pins, the placement of which, like the bound statues, serves a particular function. There are also deformity bocio that miss body parts and pregnant bocio statues with bulges or humps.
The effect can be grotesque, certainly, but not repellent. There is too much belief here, too much at stake, too sure a sense of the power of symbol for any representation to seem to exist for mere shock value. (Another area where it differs from some postmodern art.)
Much of the symbolism is hard for a casual observer to decipher, though some familiar pop-culture references are here. Think voodoo dolls (the propagation of voodoo rituals among horror-movie makers had a basis in reality). So a statue with a jaw tied to the back and closed with cords, as in several that utilize reptile skulls, is meant to cause death. One with the legs bound is meant to cause paralysis and one with a peg in the head is to render the adversary mentally unstable. Yet there are also statues that serve to protect or simply represent a divinity.
Whatever the intent of the statue, these works individually and together have an uncommon power. They speak to our helplessness and our continuing rage against that helplessness while at the same time showing the power of creation regardless of the intent of that creation.
-- Robert J. Hughes, a writer living in Paris