NOT WHAT YOU MIGHT THINK: Vodou Closing This Weekend at Museum of Civilization

“The public knows, on the whole, very little about Vodou…”

…It is a world weighed down by centuries of fabrication, most of it negative. Since the twentieth century, with the help of many literary works and films, numerous prejudices and clichés have been passed off as true: the omnipresence of black magic and zombies, the evil Vodou doll, etc. Such a context makes Vodou a dream subject for anyone who values a museum’s educational mission, since there is much to be done.”
~Curator, Mauro Peressini

As my friend and I walked into the last room in the Vodou Exhibition at the Museum of Civilization she commented that really, for all the division religion creates, there are always core elements in each that remain consistent – a code of ethics, respect for a higher power, belief in the afterlife as well as a faith that in this world we have the ability to call upon guides in the spiritual realm to intercede on our behalf.

Vodou is no different. “God is perceived as a general energy that is quite powerful and the lwa are the manifestations of that energy…the sparks of the Great Energy in the elements [earth, fire, sky, water].” Gran Mèt (The Great Master) is “an entity so absolute that one can neither imagine it nor communicate directly with it.”

The exhibit, upon first glance, may not seem to shift from stereotypes – there are skulls, dark creatures, videos of practitioners in trance – but this well curated exhibit is intersected every few feet with video stations where you can pause and have the mystery of what you are witnessing explained.

These videos are key in communicating what Voudoists would like you to take away from the exhibit. If you are willing to interact and take them in you will leave at the end of your journey through the exhibit with a profound insight into this rich and deeply layered spiritual practice.

3 figures with skulls on top and decorated with metal and beads

“The voices and perspectives of Vodouists have a special place in Vodou…”

“…That is one of the essential characteristics of the exhibition. When we consider a cultural or religious group that is different from our own, learning what its members have to say about their reality is a fundamental first step, is it not?”
~Curator, Mauro Peressini

What on the surface looks a preoccupation with death, skulls often represent the presence of our ancestors and the connection we have to them in this life as comrades in our daily battles.

The lwa can be understood as energy archetypes that when we are unbalanced or repressing what we don’t dare speak are accessible to us in order to seek comfort and regain emotional composure.

Mirrors “associated with the spirit world…are protective channels that connect that world with the world of humans”

Pe (altars) “The many objects assembled on our pe remind us of our collective past and present, as well as of the personal and spiritual history of those to whom they belong. The objects are the accumulated traces of our relationships with our ancestors and our lwa (spirits)…”


Exhibit space with sculptures that are part of Vodou traditions

“Recounting of Haiti’s harsh past reveals the extent to which the country’s long history of slavery….has shaped Vodou symbols and practises.”

A religion of revolt, Vodou was birthed from the conditions of chaos and oppression. It was a cosmology that gave order and empowerment to people suffering greatly. Ciboney and Taino, the Indigenous People of the island that is now Haiti, and the slaves brought over from Africa found a synthesis that not only allowed them a way to keep a spiritual practice despite being dislocated and uprooted but Vodou gave them a type of lingua franca that led to the  eventual overthrow of the colonists.

Statue of a woman warrior with words Guinea on her breast to represent Africa, one arm raised in a salut.

“The curators worked in close consultation with members of Haitian-Canadian communities to help ensure the authenticity of the exhibition. The result is an experience that brings museum-goers into direct contact with Vodou artifacts and the people who use them.”

What I appreciated most about the curatorial vision of this exhibit was how interactive technology was utilized in order to have the audience converse back with the practitioners who opened up their world. Upon leaving the exhibit through a circular room of large mirrors a small private area allows you to speak to a computer to leave a message of your impressions of the exhibit. You are also invited to stay and watch the previous messages. Quite amazing!

The exhibit contains over 300+ plus objects, part of the Lehmann Collection, the largest collection of its kind in the world. The curators of the Vodou, Mauro Peressini (Museum of Civilization), Didier Dominique and Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique, have done an incredible job in producing a provocative show that challenges and leaves one changed.

Vodou closes this Sunday at the Museum of Civilazation, Gatineau, Quebec.

More details on the website.

(Quotations sited from exhibit panels and text provided by Museum of Civilization)

Exhibit space with sculptures that are part of Vodou traditions
Embroidered tapestry with what looks like Moses holding 10 Commandments
woman with camera looking into large mirror with series of mirrors reflecting in mirror
Images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

CONTEMPORARY ABORIGINAL ART: Resources for All The Talent

Aboriginal dance troupe performing outside on hills at night with city of Toronto as backdropKaha:wi Dance Theatre performing The Honouring at Fort York, Toronto. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

Experiencing “The Honouring” by Kaha:wi Dance Theatres

It was a mad dash to Fort York from the MacMillan Theatre just coming out of Feng Yi Ting, the contemporary Chinese opera directed by Atom Egoyan as part of Luminato ’13.

I was determined and praying to the Gods & Goddesses of Transport that they would remove all obstacles one may encounter when riding the TTC.

I made it. A little late but it was worth the sprint up to Fort York from Bathurst, camera bag and all.

Aboriginal dance troupe performing outside on hills at night with city of Toronto as backdrop

What a stunning venue! The open air, the smell of the fires, the grass covered hills, old rock walls and the cityscape in behind. The context was beautiful but the visual juxtaposition points to an unfortunate history. The Honouring is:

“a site-specific multi-disciplinary performance honouring First Nations warriors of the War of 1812, featuring Onkwehonwe families who sacrificed to protect Haudenosaunee sovereignty, culture and land. Audiences have the opportunity to understand the complexity of the War of 1812 through the experiential lens of First Nations, offering a human face to our history.  All First Nations took part in the War of 1812 as sovereign Nation allies to Britain. 
The Honouring pays homage to their personal sacrifices and belief in what was the best for their family, community and future generations.”  More info…

Here’s a sampling of just how stunning the work of Kaha:wi is:

“Kaha:wi Dance Theatre (KDT) is one of Canada’s leading contemporary dance companies, recognized for its seamless fusing of indigenous and contemporary dance into a compelling signature choreographic vision.”  Read more…

As part of a continuation of MIXED BAG MAG’s post on National Aboriginal Day and the challenge put out there to Canadians to find out more about contemporary Aboriginal art here are some MIXED BAG MAG recommendations to get everyone started.

All of these organizations, programs, artists, and exhibitions work to dismantle the legacy of stereotypes that has stopped the dominant culture from seeing the dimensionality that we all carry within us as creative human beings as well as offer a critical voice regarding not only Canada’s First Peoples but Indigenous Peoples from around the world.

The below list focuses on Aboriginal arts in Canada and predominantly new media /visual artists. Stay tuned for a part two that will  include much more!

ARTS ORGANIZATIONS AND GALLERIES THAT FOCUS ON CONTEMPORARY FIRST NATIONS, MÉTIS, INUIT & INDIGENOUS CULTURE

ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Festival (Toronto)
The imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival celebrates the latest works by Indigenous peoples at the forefront of innovation in film, video, radio, and new media. Each fall, imagineNATIVE presents a selection of the most compelling and distinctive Indigenous works from around the globe.”  More info…

black stroke

Planet Indigenus (Toronto)
Since 2004, Planet Indigenus, in partnership with Brantford, Ontario’s Woodland Cultural Centre, has explored such ancestry and cultures through Indigenous artists. Through a 10-day, international, multidisciplinary arts festivals attended by over 700,000 people… Planet IndigenUS has raised public awareness, broken stereotypes and fostered a cross-cultural dialogue between Canadians.”  More info…

black stroke

Woodlands Cultural Centre (Brantford)
“The Woodland Cultural Centre was established in October 1972 under the direction of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians upon the closure of the Mohawk Institute Residential School. The Centre originally began its focus on collecting research and artifacts to develop its library and museum collections.  More info…

black stroke

Installation in art gallery
Installation by Roland Souliere at Urban Shaman. Image from www.rolandsouliere.com.

Urban Shaman (Winnipeg)
“Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art is a nationally recognized leader in Aboriginal arts programming and one of the foremost venues and voices for Aboriginal art in Canada.”  More info…

Young naked females wrapped in Hudson Bay blanket holding a teddy bear between the two of them.
Blanket 1 by Keesic Douglas part of Close Encounters exhibit at Urban Shaman. Image from www.artsforall.ca.

black stroke

Installation in gallery of patchwork flags and dolls
Work by Natalie Ball at Grunt Gallery. Image from www.grunt.ca.

Grunt Gallery (Vancouver)
Grunt is an artist-run centre founded in 1984 in Vancouver, BC, with a vision to be an international renowned artist-run centre furthering contemporary art practice. Through the exploration of our diverse Canadian cultural identity we offer innovative public programming in exhibitions, performances, artist talks, publications and special projects.” More info…

Gallery room full of canvases painted in West Coast art style
Work by Andrew Dexel at Grunt Gallery. Image from gruntarchives.tumblr.com.

black stroke

AbTec (Montreal)
AbTeC is a network of academics, artists and technologists whose goal is to define and share conceptual and practical tools that will allow us to create new, Aboriginally-determined territories within the web-pages, online games, and virtual environments that we call cyberspace.”  More info…


Work by Skawennati Fragnito of AbTec. Image from www.facebook.com/skawennati.

black stroke


Large painting by Isaac Narciso Weber of OCADU’s Indigenous Visual Culture Program, exhibit as part of  Planet Indigenus Festival. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

Indigenous Visual Culture Program @ OCAD U (Toronto)
The program prepares students to engage in complex and evolving global discourses in Aboriginal history, art history and contemporary art practice across a range of expressions, material and media.”  More info…


Work in foreground by Tara Bursey from OCADU’s Indigenous Visual Culture Program, exhibit as part of Harbourfront Centre’s Planet Indigenus Festival. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

CURRENT & RECENT EXHIBITIONS CONTEMPORARY FIRST NATIONS, MÉTIS, INUIT & INDIGENOUS CULTURE

Logo that says Indigenous And Urban

Indigenous & Urban @ The Museum of Civilization (Ottawa)
OPENING TODAY!
“Live. Engaging. Diverse. Inspired and challenged by contemporary urban life,Canadian Indigenous artists address issues of identity and stereotypes through humorous and thought-provoking works. Indigenous and Urban is a summer-long program featuring visual and media arts, music, dance, film, readings and interactive workshops.”  More info…

black stroke

IN THE FLESH (Ottawa)
“In the Flesh examines the hierarchical relationship between humans and animals within a cultural and museological context, and investigates colonial politics, as well as issues of gender as they relate to the mastery of the natural world…In the Flesh grants us visual access to nature while calling into question the politics of representation. As the guest catalogue essayist Ariel Smith notes: “With In the Flesh, the Ottawa Art Gallery participates in a city-wide indigenization of gallery spaces to coincide with the National Gallery of Canada’s Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art exhibition. This indigenization does not exist within a vacuum, and we must reflect on the ways in which these acts of claiming space respond to and are in conversation with both the current and historical politics of Indigenous cultural sovereignty.””
More info…

black stroke

Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art (Ottawa)
CURRENTLY RUNNING UNTIL SEPT 2, 2013
“Sakahàn—meaning “to light [a fire]” in the language of the Algonquin peoples—brings together more than 150 works of recent Indigenous art by over 80 artists from 16 countries, celebrating the National Gallery’s ongoing commitment to the study and appreciation of Indigenous art. This exhibition is the first in an ongoing series of surveys of Indigenous art. The artworks in Sakahàn provide diverse responses to what it means to be Indigenous today. Through their works, the artists engage with ideas of self-representation to question colonial narratives and present parallel histories; place value on the handmade; explore relationships between the spiritual, the uncanny and the everyday; and put forward highly personal responses to the impact of social and cultural trauma. The artworks range from video installations to sculptures, drawings, prints, paintings, performance art, murals and other new, site-specific projects created specifically for this exhibition.”  More info…


Cover of Sakahan Catalogue. Image from www.amazon.com.

black stroke

Border Cultures Part One: homes, land (Windsor)
2013

“Border Cultures: Part One (homes, land) brings together artists working locally and nationally with those exploring these issues in Ireland, Mexico, Palestine to list a few. Using drawing and printmaking, sculpture and photography, video and sound-based installations, artists in this exhibition develop nuanced critiques and perspectives on questions of nationhood, citizenship and identity in the border-lands” More Info…


Installation by Dylan Miner. Image by Frank Piccolo on wcontemporaryart.wordpress.com.

black stroke

Contemporary Aboriginal art in a large gallery space with white wallsInstallation view of Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture at The Power Plant, Toronto, December 2012 – May 2013. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.

Beat Nation (Toronto)
2013
Beat Nation describes a generation of artists who juxtapose urban youth culture with Aboriginal identity to create innovative and unexpected new works that reflect the current realities of Aboriginal peoples today. ”  More info…

Contemporary Aboriginal art in a large gallery space with white walls
Installation view of Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture at The Power Plant, Toronto, December 2012 – May 2013. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.

black stroke


Poster for Fashionality featuring the work of Dana Claxton.

Fashionality @ The McMichael (Kleinberg)
2012
“Fashionality” is a newly coined term that refers to the visual culture and semiotics of dress and adornment. Combining the words “fashion,” “personality,” and “nationality,” it reflects the interplay between clothing, identity, and culture.”  More info…


Poster for Fashionality featuring the work of KC Adams.

black stroke


Art work by Luke Parnell. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

Not So Fast | NSF (Toronto)
2012
“Objects tell a story and reveal a history through the way they are made. In the current state of late-capitalism, value is often measured in terms of speed and efficiency. NOT SO FAST | NSF invites a reconsideration of time and place to present different kinds of value. This exhibition brings together works by seven Indigenous artists who address the many products and by-products of consumer society.”  More info…


Work by Tania Willard. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

black stroke

AboDIGITAL (Kelowna)
2012
“In aboDIGITAL, Mi’kmaw artist Jordan Bennett examines the interface of audio-visual technologies and the internet with his First Nations heritage. Bennett’s art deftly blends such seemingly disparate elements as Mi’kmaq worldview, hip hop culture, ceremonial practice and graffiti aesthetics, creating dynamic works that express the fluidity, vitality and continuity of Aboriginal cultures in the present.More info…

Painting of a google search with the words "why are native americans' and the resulting drop down of resultsPainting by Jordan Bennett. Image from www.alternatorcentre.com.

black stroke


Artist Sonny Assu with Decolonize Me curator Heather Igloliorte.

Decolonize Me (Ottawa)
2011
“Decolonize Me features six contemporary Aboriginal artists whose works challenge, interrogate and reveal Canada’s long history of colonization in daring and innovative ways. Deliberately riffing on the title of Morgan Spurlock’s film, the pop-cultural phenomenon Super Size Me (2004), the exhibition’s title emphasizes the importance of recognizing the role of the individual within larger discussions of shared colonial histories and present-day cultural politics.” More info…


Decolonize Me show at Bishop University. Image from www.ubishops.ca.

black stroke


Image from www.ago.net.

Inuit Modern @ The AGO (Toronto)
2011
The exhibition considers how the Inuit have coped with and responded to the swift transition from a traditional lifestyle to one marked by the disturbing complexities of globalization and climate change.  More info

& The Inuit Modern Symposium
“Inuit artists and thinkers reflected on this statement during a three-part online symposium..
. It explored the questions: What are the current issues affecting Inuit art today and how has modernity complicated life in Canada’s far North? How has Inuit art changed the way that Canada and Inuit are viewed internationally?”  More on…

black stroke

Image from the cover of Close Encounters Catalogue.

Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years
2011
“A banner project for Winnipeg Cultural Capital of Canada 2010 Program comprised of a large-scale exhibition focused on presenting Indigenous art from around the world. This is an incredibly important show, featuring the work of a number of renowned Canadian Indigenous artists, complemented by some of the most innovative and engaging work drawn from Indigenous populations across the globe” More info…


Work by Pudlo Pudlat. Image from www.closeencounters.ca.

Aboriginal dance troupe performing outside on hills at night with city of Toronto as backdropKaha:wi Dance Theatre performing The Honouring at Fort York, Toronto. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

AN ARCHAEOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE: Digging Down into the Layers of Institutional Information

A view with the fall colours just outside Ottawa in Chelsea.

Back from the Nation’s Capital!

The one thing I love about living above the 49th parallel is the experience of seasons. Although the fall represents the dying away of the fruits of summer and points towards the contemplative mood of winter, with winter comes the promise of spring’s rebirth and new opportunities for growth. The symbolism is simple but profoundly significant.

A trek north with the chance to leave the concrete jungle of urban Toronto was rewarded by arriving in the Ottawa area at the peak of autumn’s technicolour display augmented by the light of shifting stormy skies. Sometimes you need to get out of the city to see a new view – literally and metaphorically.

French artist Louise Bourgeois' sculpture of a spider titled "Maman" outside the National Gallery in Ottawa, Canada.French artist, Louise Bourgeois’ “Maman” sculpture outside the National Gallery.

French-Canadian artist Joe Fafard's sculpture "Running Horses" outside the National Gallery, Ottawa, CanadaFrench-Canadian artist Joe Fafard’s “Running Horses” sculpture outside the National Gallery.

The purpose of the trip was also to start research into a series of articles that will be featured on MIXED BAG MAG regarding “Curating Identity” so some trips to the National Gallery as well as the Museum of Civilization were on the agenda.

During this time I was also trying (unsuccessfully) to work through French cultural theorist Michel Foucault’s “The Archaeology of Knowledge” because as Foucault proposed the way that we organize, categorize and structure information explains a lot about our worldviews when we dig down into the layers.

“The Description of Statements”

After my first visit to the National Gallery I realized that somehow I missed coming across the Inuit Collection. Upon my second visit I almost missed it again. I circled back around the Contemporary Canadian Collection on the First Floor to try to find what I was looking for as I passed by numerous Groups of Sevens and Michael Snows. Finally I gave in and just asked.

“Where is the Contemporary Inuit Collection?”

The guard didn’t seem to get what I was saying about “contemporary”.

“You mean the Inuit Collection?”

“Yes, but is there a separate contemporary section like here in this section, you know, current work”

“Dunno, but the Inuit Collection is down in the dungeon”

and he pointed to sets of descending stairs.

As much as I adore Moshe Safdie’s architecture somehow in the design the Inuit Collection got relegated to what a National Gallery employee referred to as the “dungeon” in the final structure.

Unfortunately this is telling. The symbolism of the statement, most likely not deliberate or intentionally demeaning, represents a sticky problem with regards to Canadian identity. There is a thorny mess that we can get into when cultural biases that are long due to die away have yet to go through their winter of contemplation.

During the trip I met up with Zimbabwean artist and educator Chiko Chazunguza to discuss, among other things, the hot topic – identity in the visual arts. He shared with me this story. Once, in a class he was teaching back in Zimbabwe, he asked a group of black students to draw portraits. The faces these young African artists depicted were all white. Again – unfortunately telling. How do we begin to structure knowledge so that we build a world where all of us are able to see our own faces reflected back positively?

Haida-Canadian artist Bill Reid’s “Spirit of Haida Gwaii” sculpture inspired by Haida mythology inside the Museum of Civilization. Haida artist Bill Reid’s “Spirit of Haida Gwaii” sculpture inside the Museum of Civilization.

“The Museum is the Medium”

After a workshop at OCAD U on Marshall McLuhan I had a quick discussion with a visiting professor’s presentation on how a museum can be the medium. As an example he described the Museum to the Holocaust in the Jewish Museum, Berlin and its encompassing of a void space of silence with little light. The physical structure of a museum, its internal layout, its contents (or lack of contents) as well as the taxonomy of its collections becomes in itself the medium that delivers the message of that institution’s normatives.

“The criteria of epistemes can be defined through what or whom they exclude or disqualify” ~ Michel Foucault

The Museum of Civilization has a beautiful and substantial collection of Aboriginal artifacts but with a contemporary art section making only a brief appearance at the tail end the feeling I was left with was that perhaps there is still a national episteme that First Nations, Inuit and Métis cultures are buried back in the past with weak relevance to the contemporary Canadian context although their current retrospective exhibit of Métis artist Bob Boyer’s work (curated by Lee Ann Martin) is a step in a progressive direction. This engaging exhibit confirms that there are curators (and even institutions) out there that are eager to redress this issue.

Trains-N-Boats-N-Plains: The Nina, the Santa Maria and a Pinto by Metis-Canadian artist Bob Boyer. View more of Bob Boyer’s work on the Virtual Museum of Canada

Shows like AGO’s Inuit Modern (curated by Gerald McMaster) last year and this year’s Fashionality: Dress + Identity in Contemporary Canadian Art (curated by Julie Pine) at the McMichael illustrate that we have a wealth of contemporary First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists. It is exhibits like these that demonstrate that a dismantling of the old knowledge base stuck in the mire of the one-sided story of colonialism has begun.

It is the vision of curators, like those mentioned above, that will assist us in moving forward to define a new national narrative appropriate to the 21st Century and the spring of our history(s).

“There is no “history” but a multiple, overlapping and interactive series of legitimate vs. excluded histories.” ~ Michel Foucault

Trains-N-Boats-N-Plains: The Nina, the Santa Maria and a Pinto by Metis-Canadian artist Bob Boyer. American artist Roxy Paine’s “One Hundred Foot Line” sculpture outside the National Gallery with statue of Champlain, the Father of New France, in the background.

Photography by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.