Crabs, bats and communists, in Cuba's greatest Soviet souvenir.
Monday 27 April 2015
There’s a gallery I visited in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, which is filled entirely with bizarre industrial sculptures. I’d find a strong vodou theme to the collection too – and when I looked a little closer at some of these pieces I began to spot skulls and bones scattered here are there, conjoined with leftover machine parts.
The gallery is composed of a series of courtyards, tucked away behind houses on Grand Rue, one of the main roads running through the city. We entered it through an ominous archway, walking beneath a leering skull with flashing red lights set into the eye sockets; alongside the latin motto, ‘E PLURIBUS UNUM’ (‘Out of Many, One’) and the address for an associated website. The place wasn’t busy when we visited – it seemed like we were the only tourists there. We were at least the only white people there, which usually amounts to the same thing in Haiti.
Some of the artists were present; they sat in corners, smoking, or playing games around a table. When I got closer I saw that the gaming board was their own creation too – a sheet of plywood inside a frame, painted up in gaudy colours.
I walked past life-size demons, all red faces and horns, giant phalluses and spiky tridents; around disturbing installations which juxtaposed children’s dolls with electrical tools, writhing tentacles formed from tangles of vacuum tubes.
The place was incredibly disturbing and I was curious to know what it was all about – what it all meant – and so I got chatting to one of the artists, Andre, about the inspiration behind the gallery.
Andre explained that the artists had all grown up in the same neighbourhood, a group of poor kids playing in the abandoned factories of Port-au-Prince’s industrial district. Their art symbolically mimicked the world they knew – children making toys out of broken machines, in a society torn between globalism and old, vodou superstitions.
He showed me inside a shipping container at the back of one of the courtyards. It was full of unfinished works, along with some electric-powered pieces that needed protection from the elements. Red LED eyes glowed in the dark amongst a forest of wooden figures; claws, talons, skulls, spears… and genitalia everywhere.
There certainly were some strong sexual themes mixed into the sculptures… along with poignant themes of slavery, black babies in chains, and so on. The latter was unsurprising, really, considering the significance of the slave trade in shaping the society of Haiti today. More surprising were the elements of Western esotericism that had slipped into the mix, the occasional eyes-in-pyramids, or square-and-compass motifs; though as I’d later learn, Haiti has a long history of colonial freemasonry to draw upon.
I was predominantly interested in the vodou angle, however. This was what I’d come to Haiti for, the exotic and mysterious native faith of the island’s people. I was still just coming to terms with the reality of it all by this stage; up until now, ‘voodoo’ was something I’d only encountered in films and yet here it was, a concrete, cultural reality that entered into everything from household superstitions to postmodern art.
I asked Andre about the skulls and bones that appeared everywhere – Were they real? I asked. Were they all… human?
“Oh yes,” Andre replied with a big smile. “These come from the cemetery, they’re all very real.”
Later I’d visit the boneyard – le Grand Cimetière – for myself, and find that human skulls were not difficult to acquire; they lay about between disinterred graves, or sometimes appeared nailed to the trunks of trees. Their use here in works of art was unsettling for me, but there was also a certain honesty about it. The wood, the bones, the exposed mechanisms, it all served to show the human creature as just another of the earth’s fleshy machines.
As I passed an artist working in the next yard, I saw the care he took while handling the bones. I watched as he closed his eyes, and mouthed a silent prayer over the remains… before beginning the process of supergluing a femur to a washing machine drum.
I spoke to Andre again, before I left the place. They had some items for sale, and I wanted to take a souvenir – not just for myself, but also as a way to show my support for this strangely wonderful collective of artists. The larger figures, giant sculpted demons and the like, cost as much as $300 a piece; but I wanted something smaller and so Andre showed me a set of wooden plaques inscribed with vodou veve.
These veve, I knew, were sigils used in vodou summoning rituals… and though I’m hardly superstitious, before I made a purchase I still felt it might be worth knowing exactly who the symbol was designed to invoke. The Baron Samedi piece, though visually striking, I passed up – instead picking a small wooden crest that bore the heart-sigil of Erzulie.
“This loa, she is nice,” Andre explained. “Spirit of love and dancing and beauty.”
Alright, I thought – this sounded like someone I wouldn’t mind having around. I bought the piece, thanked Andre and I left the museum behind. Though as an epilogue to this story, that vodou sigil would never make it home with me.
I last remember seeing it a week later, while I was staying with the family of an evangelical preacher in Miami. To this day I have no idea whether the priest had found my heretical souvenir and disposed of it for me… or if I had simply left it there by accident, and given the family a surprise when they later found a vodou ritual device in their home. Either way, I didn’t mind losing it. I’d bought the token primarily to support the artists, but in reality I was perfectly content – as is usually my way – to walk away from the experience with nothing more than photographs and memories.
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