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.