Vodou in NYC

Mambo Carmen becomes possessed by the Loa Klemezin. Shannon Taggart, 2010.

Often relegated to tabloid news coverage, the Afro-Caribbean religions, such as Santeria, Palo Mayombe, Palo Monte, and Vodoun, are some of the most beautiful and complex spiritual paths that can be found in the world. They have been forged in the sorrow, pain and violence of our colonial history, tempered with the hopes and joys that can only come from true perseverance.  It’s unfortunate that when we hear about them their beauty is usually obscured by patronizing, inept journalism, or, more frequently, by fear mongering, thinly veiled racism.

Maya Deren’s seminal work, The Divine Horsemen, was my first encounter with the depth of the Haitian tradition of Vodoun, and I’ll never forget how it changed my view of  life.  More recently I’ve enjoyed the work of Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold, an anthropologist,  Palero, and Vodoun initiate, whose works on Quimbanda and Palo Mayombe are published by Scarlet Imprint.

Engaging Frisvold’s writings brought these traditions closer to home, and opened up an even deeper vision for how truly integral they are to practices that we have lost sight of in Western culture. Despite their characterization as primitive, or foreign, the Afro-Carribean traditions give great insights into what lies at the heart of Western spiritual practice.

There is a joke in an episode of the Simpsons that says that the true religion is “a mix between Methodism and Voodoo,” and when one begins to seriously study comparative beliefs this becomes a surprisingly accurate assessment.

Because our culture demonizes depth, mocks difference, and rarely seeks beyond the surface, these traditions have remained largely underground. The popularization of ‘voodoo’ bears little relation to the actual spiritual practices of devotees.

This is starting to change, however, as greater openness to esoteric spirituality is being expressed across the culture. One of the centers of this exploration is the Observatory in Brooklyn, New York, “an art and events space in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Founded in February 2009 and run by a group of nine artists and bloggers, the space seeks to present programming inspired by the 18th century notion of “rational amusement” and is especially interested in topics residing at the interstices of art and science, history and curiosity, magic and nature.”

One of the artists associated with the Observatory is the photographer Shannon Taggart. Her work has been featured in mainstream publications such as NY Times Magazine, Wall St. Journal, time, Newsweek, Readers Digest and Discover, but her true artistry is in capturing liminal spiritualities such as her photo series of the Spiritualist community at Lily Dale, and her work documenting the Brooklyn Vodoun priestest Rose Marie Pierre.

“Taggart’s project began when she met a Mambo, or female Vodou priest, named Rose Marie Pierre, who runs a temple in the basement of a nondescript storefront in the working class neighborhood of Flatbush. It was here that Taggart made these images of priests and laymen undergoing possession by the Loa—powerful spirits that act as intermediaries between humankind and Vodou’s distant god, Bondye. Most Loa are benign, some are malevolent, but every spirit has a distinct personality, role in the world and set of demands and services. In their different ways, practitioners believe, these spirits determine our fate and must be consulted and appeased.”

Taggart’s work can be seen in light of the developing field of paranthropology, and provides a stunning example of what can be accomplished when we engage with the world with an open, and delicate, curiosity. It is very exciting to see her work get more recognition, and with the continued activity of spaces that bring this kind of awareness, such as the Observatory, there is a  hope that theses influences can spread and inspire others in a similar vein.

See more of Shannon Taggart’s work at Beautiful/Decay. Also, make sure to click the “via” link to see the entire set, and longer article, at Time/Lightbox.

 

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  • eruditeogre

    I highly recommend anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown’s MAMA LOLA too.

  • eruditeogre

    I highly recommend anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown’s MAMA LOLA too.

  • Matt Staggs

    Anyone read Zora Neale Hurston’s “Tell My Horse”? Pretty good ethnographic account of vodoun in the Caribbean. Hurston just took off with typewriter and a revolver and went to study this stuff. Very interesting lady, very brave.

    • Jin The Ninja

      already of a high opinion of you, for name dropping ZNH you went up a couple points:P

    • Bup Bup

       Read “Mules and Men” for a good account of traditional Southern Hoodoo as well.

    • Bup Bup

       Read “Mules and Men” for a good account of traditional Southern Hoodoo as well.

  • http://www.sacredgeometryinternational.com/ Camron Wiltshire

    Voudon originally piqued my interests via The Invisibles by Grant Morrison.  Any particular books you guys would recommend for a deeper telling?

  • http://www.sacredgeometryinternational.com/ Camron Wiltshire

    Voudon originally piqued my interests via The Invisibles by Grant Morrison.  Any particular books you guys would recommend for a deeper telling?

    • Matt Staggs

       I’d hit up Metcalfe next time you see him commenting. That guy is like some kind of walking esoteric encyclopedia.

    • Matt Staggs

       I’d hit up Metcalfe next time you see him commenting. That guy is like some kind of walking esoteric encyclopedia.

    • Jin The Ninja

       practice or history?

    • Jin The Ninja

       practice or history?

      • http://www.sacredgeometryinternational.com/ Camron Wiltshire

         Either is fine.  Thank you.

    • David Metcalfe

      Milo Rigaud’s Secrets of Voodoo (goofy title, decent overview) has some interesting exploration of the cross-over between “Western Esotericism” and the Afro-Caribbean traditions. Which is important to understand since Martinez de Pasqually, founder of Martinism, spent time in Haiti, and the French presence there played a part in Vodoun’s development.

      All of the material mentioned here in the comments is good, as I mentioned in the article Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold’s work is great (not Vodoun necessarily, but he is on the Yoruba council, and it helps to have a wide understanding of the different traditions to understand each one seperately.) Zora Neale Hurston’s work is wonderful, and she was initiated during her field work. She wrote on both Hoodoo traditions and Vodoun, so you’d want to make sure which you’re reading, as there is quite a difference. Her book on Hoodoo is Of Mules & Men.

      Wade Davis’ Serpent & the Rainbow is interesting in terms of the political nature of the Societies. Press around it focuses on the whole zombie thing, but the most interesting material in it is on how the initiatory structure works. Also for a very folkloric look Magic Island by William Seabrook provides a “romantic” view considered outdated in terms of scholarship, but he evokes the efficacy of the beliefs in a way that more academic/rational treatments don’t.

      Marilyn Houlberg did some interesting work on the sacred and ritual artwork.

      Keep in mind that there are a number of different forms of Vodou, depending on the area, all of them stemming from a West African base, but there are subtle, and not so subtle, differences depending on the area.

      There’s quite a bit of academic work out there, which all kind of blurs together.

      Best way to learn about a tradition like this is to meet/talk with a practitioner though.

    • David Metcalfe

      Milo Rigaud’s Secrets of Voodoo (goofy title, decent overview) has some interesting exploration of the cross-over between “Western Esotericism” and the Afro-Caribbean traditions. Which is important to understand since Martinez de Pasqually, founder of Martinism, spent time in Haiti, and the French presence there played a part in Vodoun’s development.

      All of the material mentioned here in the comments is good, as I mentioned in the article Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold’s work is great (not Vodoun necessarily, but he is on the Yoruba council, and it helps to have a wide understanding of the different traditions to understand each one seperately.) Zora Neale Hurston’s work is wonderful, and she was initiated during her field work. She wrote on both Hoodoo traditions and Vodoun, so you’d want to make sure which you’re reading, as there is quite a difference. Her book on Hoodoo is Of Mules & Men.

      Wade Davis’ Serpent & the Rainbow is interesting in terms of the political nature of the Societies. Press around it focuses on the whole zombie thing, but the most interesting material in it is on how the initiatory structure works. Also for a very folkloric look Magic Island by William Seabrook provides a “romantic” view considered outdated in terms of scholarship, but he evokes the efficacy of the beliefs in a way that more academic/rational treatments don’t.

      Marilyn Houlberg did some interesting work on the sacred and ritual artwork.

      Keep in mind that there are a number of different forms of Vodou, depending on the area, all of them stemming from a West African base, but there are subtle, and not so subtle, differences depending on the area.

      There’s quite a bit of academic work out there, which all kind of blurs together.

      Best way to learn about a tradition like this is to meet/talk with a practitioner though.

      • http://www.sacredgeometryinternational.com/ Camron Wiltshire

         Thank you David.  Appreciate your guidance.

      • http://www.sacredgeometryinternational.com/ Camron Wiltshire

         Thank you David.  Appreciate your guidance.

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