When I first moved to Chicago I knew I had to go to the David Bowie exhibit. But when I first saw the Papa Legba bus station poster for the Voudou exhibit at the Field Museum, I knew I had to go to that too. Especially since I had been studying Santeria for my novel, arguably similar to Haitian Voudou. I got even more excited by the ads inside of the El, but I was worried it was all hype and marketing. I really wanted to see authentic, non-stigmatized representation of Haitian Voudou specifically; not hoodoo. Luckily one of my best friends already went to go see the exhibit which she said was definitely worth it. I even got a five dollar discount for being an IL resident. Woot!
“ANPERÈ BIZANGO (BIZANGO EMPEROR)
This crowned bizango has fought tough battles, as the amputation of his forearm attests. The chains he wears recall the years during which those battles were fought. The ropes that bind him to his chair show that this lwa’s power needs to be controlled.” —Description of lwa above at the Field Museum
My favorite part about the exhibit was its authenticity, and the overall setup. From the powerful presence of the lwa (spirits) and clips, to the straight forward informative posts about each item. The entire time I felt like there was just enough description to keep me interested and moving along to the next item. At first I was upset I lost my pen on the train ride there, but I ended up copying a girl in front of me who just took pictures of the descriptions that went along with the different cultural aspects of Haitian voudou. I didn’t even realize how much material I had been presented with until I began transcribing.
Being of Mexican heritage myself, I have always been hurt by the impact of colonization and conversion, the assumption that the colonizer’s religion needs to be impressed on the other, while the subjugated people’s beliefs are demonized. In college I read a book called Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape by Robert A. Orsi, on the difficulties of followers maintaining an altar in an urban space, and having to disguise their orisha or lwa (Santeria and voudou respectively) as Christian saints in order to preserve their practice because of the negative stereotype of voodoo dolls, sacrificed animals etc. I was mad that this could not be an open practice. And yet there is a strength in followers not giving up, and preserving their beliefs in their hearts. I really liked that this exhibit contextualized the artifacts in this matter; that the lwa were ruthless warriors representative of the fight for freedom from slavery. So powerful were they that they fought with amputations and had to be held back with ropes and chains. Though intrigued by voudou, I never really saw it in that historical context, as being born out of resistance to slavery and in the name of freedom. I liked that things were put back into context and from the Haitian perspective. In one of the clips, a lady explained that the sacrificed animals were farm animals who had been taken care of for a few years and gave themselves over to the cause without struggle or pain. Though I personally don’t like animal deaths, when given the chance to hear this woman’s perspective, was able to see it in a different light. It sounded a lot more humanitarian than the standard of living for most animals in the meat industry, and was done with a sacred purpose. I felt that even though I had some previous understanding of voudou, I came to the Field Museum drawn to a concept; I walked away with a powerful impression of its day to day sacred life and why it was so important as a symbol of hope and strength for the Haitian people.