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Messengers of the Invisible

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 16, 2011

August and anyone who is anyone has left Paris (and other Europeans cities) for the country for vacation. As one looks at the shuttered apartment windows, the empty streets (except for places such as Champs Elysees Avenue) and the barely-filed cafes that inundate the city and its sidewalks one realizes that everything will remain in abeyance until September when Parisians return to work and attend to their business again.

I went to Paris to view "Vodun: African Voodoo," a path-breaking exhibition at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art where over one hundred pieces of African Vodun sculpture were brought together under one roof for the first time. Thanks to the late Jacques Kerchache and his wife Anne, the Western world had a chance to view these revealing sculptures and glimpse at their cosmological universe.

I have always been attracted to African art and sculpture. In 2008, the same year in which Barak Obama won the presidency of the United States, I visited the Arts Institute of Chicago to view "Benin: Kings of Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria" where over 220 pieces from Benin's rich artistic history were being displayed. It brought back sad memories of a time (1897) when Britain invaded the kingdom of Benin and stole several thousands pieces of its arts treasures, much of which ended up in the British Museum and different parts of the world. Such artistic richness speaks eloquently to Africa's contribution to world civilization and culture.

My traveling companion could not understand what I saw in these pieces. The images created a sense of revulsion in her mind, a show put on for the entertainment of whites in the metropole. "It's not something they understand. It makes them feel good and allows for good intellectual conversation at the dinner table. It leads to a sanctification of human sacrifices and diabolical rituals." It was not so much that she disliked African art but she was more concerned about what Europeans do with our art and the function it plays in soothing their guilty consciences.

I do not agree with my companion's take on things. Seeing these Vodun sculptures--some would say primitive pieces--in a modern gallery in Paris took my mind back to my childhood in Tacarigua, Trinidad where my grandmother, a practitioner of orisha (Yoruba) and Anglican Catholicism, had to reconcile beliefs her parents brought with them from Africa via the other Caribbean islands and those that the slave master thrust upon her.

Vodun, as the catalog states, "is an ancient religious cult and philosophical tradition originating from the 'Slave coast' of West Africa and is still active today in the region, as it is practiced by populations from the coasts of Togo to Western Nigeria." It was brought to the Caribbean and the Americas where it mixed with Roman Catholicism as well as other religious traditions. I did not appreciate the use of the word "cult" to describe the religion of my forebears. It was a way of under cutting the importance of what I believe and a chipping away at my own self-conception.

Vodun cosmology centers on Vodun spirits and other elements of spirits of the divine essence that governs the earth and which reflects itself in the practices of its major deities. "The followers of Vodun believe that there is a link between visible worlds of the living and the invisible worlds of the spirits" that is accessed through prayers, sacrifice, possession and divination.

So that when, in my infant days, my grandmother and Miss Gerald, "the Shango woman," as we called her, sacrificed their goats and fowl-cocks to the Loa (the intermediaries between the Creator and humanity) they were trying mightily to connect with the gods/spirits they had known in their original homes. When they "ketch de spirit," as they did in these rituals, they were only trying to communicate with the spirits of their ancestors who had come to mingle with them during these religious rites.

The word Vodun also possesses another meaning. Some scholars link it to the Ewe (an ethnic group in Ghana, Benin and Togo) word vo that means "hole" or "opening," which can be related to that which is hidden or secret. Du, a Fa term used among the Fon of Dahomey, may be interpreted to mean "signs" or "messengers" which suggests that Vodum can be translated to read "messengers of the invisible." In other words, devotees of Vodun and Shango can be seen as messengers who seek to communicate with the invisible world of their ancestors.

For years many of us (Africans) walked around feeling ashamed to be associated with words such as Voodoo and Shango and the negative connotations associated with them. Few of us (Africans and Europeans) know or are even willing to accept the positive cosmological significance of these practices. Yet each group of people seeks to explain their world with the tools that are placed at their disposal which suggests the equality of all religious practices which, in the end, are nothing more than attempts to explain the forces that rule our being in this world.

Tacarigua is a long way from Paris. The latter reeks with culture and sophistication whereas the former remains a simple village untouched by excesses of modernity. Through her religious practices, my grandmother was trying to connect with her divinities, a process that allowed her to remain calm and accepting in a world that was not her own.

Somewhere, beyond the waters, beyond the visible, her spirit resides with kindred spirits where they make their own music, practice their own religion, celebrate their gods and dance the dance of their ancestors.

Their calmness and repose in the teeth of oppression and victimization should grant us the necessary flexibility and teach us the indubitable perseverance to maneuver in a hostile world that has little respect for our ways of seeing the world.

As they survived, so too, we will survive and triumph.

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