Episteme and Methods between Art History, Art and ­Ethnology in the Performative Pictorial Practices of Vodun



The SNF project “Conflict and Cooperation. Episteme and Methods Between Art History, Art and Ethnology in the Performative Pictorial Practices of Vodun” aims to investigate aesthetic aspects of transgression and revaluation in the history of research on Vodun. Looking back from today’s practices and visualizations of Vodun into the 20th century it intends to extend academic and artistic methods of research while questioning established systems of knowledge and valuation both in art history and ethnology.


Prof. Dr. Bärbel Küster, Institute of Art History, University of Zurich (Principal Investigator)
Dr. Dora Imhof, Investigator in Art History
U5, Artistic Research
Niklas Wolf, M.A., Investigator in Art History

Zainabu Jallo (January-March 2022), Investigator in Visual Anthropology

Sela Adjei (September 2023), Investigator in Art and Philosophy

Gina Athena Ulysse (August-September 2023) Investigator in Art and Anthropology

Prof. Dr. Philip Ursprung, Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta), ETH Zurich
Prof. Dr. Thomas Reinhardt, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, LMU Munich

Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)

Cultural background, academic approach

This project was initiated by a group of researchers and artists who share similar interests and questions towards performative practices of images and their epistemological potential. Our research projects deal with historic as well as contemporary practices of visual representations of Vodun in different settings, contexts and media. All founding members have been brought up, educated and socialized in Germany and Switzerland, none of them is initiated into any Vodun. We are aware that this position is framing the horizon of knowledge towards productions from different historical times and geographical cultural practices.
The term Vodun refers to religious practices, spirits and objects that produce dynamic forms of knowledge, history, healing, or jurisprudence. It involves ritual performance, sound and powerful visualizations. Vodun was and continues to be practiced and developed particularly in West African countries and Afrodiasporic contexts. Through the routes of the Black Atlantic especially, the religious practice established itself in the Caribbean and the Americas. In Haitian Vodou, Candomblé, Santería etc. religious ideas and practices were adapted and further developed to local contexts, partly in confrontation, and partly in connection with Western religions. In West Africa, in Haiti and many diasporic contexts, Vodun is currently part of new critical debates; it is used educationally in digital spaces and re-appropriated in works of art negotiating aspects of identity, alterity and remembrance.
Historically Vodun posed challenges to anthropology, art history and artistic practices. In the second half of the 20th century, artists like the filmmaker Maya Deren sought to develop new approaches and a deeper understanding of Vodun to decidedly overcome exoticism. Deren’s approach merging methodologies of art and cultural anthropology/ethnology through the media of film, photography, and text was exceptional.
While Deren was a precursor in many respects, today’s concern is in how far her exocentric and Western approach can be reconciled with today’s artistic and academic approaches to Vodun in West Africa and Haiti. The conflicts arising from such diverse perspectives –African, Afrodiasporic and European– will be discussed through cooperative research practices during the project. They give rise to key questions: How is West-African practice of Vodun today connected to other locations? What is the role of different media – as virtual formats or museum spaces– concerning aspects of remembrance and identity? How are objects and images involved in performative practices of the religion? How do processes of decolonialization and global relations, new conditions of artist’s travels, and object biographies affect new forms of practice and visualization? How to interpret the fact that some Vodun practices themselves may integrate and invert exoticisms today? These questions will be examined through different methods from the field of art and visual studies, art history, cultural anthropology/ethnology. They include dialogical formats such as oral history, performative art history, artistic research, and cooperative knowledge practices.


Please register before September 7:
Only afternoon panels will be streamed.

More Information


Out of Focus

Dr. Dora Imhof, U5

The project Out of Focus. The artistic-ethnographic practice of Maya Deren and Leonore Mau investigates two historical positions of artistic engagement with Vodou in Haiti. In a collaboration between an art historian and artists we reexamine their work and ask how it can be productive for contemporary discourses on artistic research, questions of representation, the uses of archives, and (photography) ethics.

Voduns Visuals (working title)

Niklas Wolf

Vodun are part of complex spiritual world-views, connecting and balancing the sacred with the secular, the ancestral worlds with the ones of the living, humans with nature. Such local and global supra temporal connections manifest in specific ways of displaying and performing Vodun.

Material Expressions of West African Spirituality in the Americas: Transatlantic Continuities in Haiti

Zainabu Jallo

Within the various modes of West African Vodun, spiritual faith is expressed through a wide range of material forms. Its doctrinal system and spirituality are founded upon the belief that the immanent characters of divinities are accommodated within natural elements and the material world.

Chieftaincy, Spirituality and Heritage Preservation: Visual Evidence of Vodu in Photographic Archives

In collaboration with Rita Mawuena Benissan / SiHene Archive

In most indigenous societies in the southern part of Ghana, Vodu has mainly served as the political power base of jurisprudence, power succession, symbolic display of power and political authority. In this discussion, we will investigate how Chieftaincy has been photographed from 1800 to the present day using the SiHene archive (curated by Rita Mawuena Benissan). Through a careful reexamination of these photographs, we will try to identify the visual references and symbolic evidence of how Vodu is captured and manifested in traditional politics in Ghana.

Ethnographic Access and the Reckoning

Ethnographic Access and the Reckoning

Gina Athena Ulysse

Revisiting parts of Mau’s Haiti archives during this moment of reckoning, this project will explore questions of access and circuits of violence, epistemic and otherwise in the ethnographic encounter.


Bärbel Küster

Dora Imhof


Niklas Wolf

Zainabu Jallo

Sela Adjei

Gina Athena Ulysse


University of Zurich

University of Zurich
Institute of Art History

Rämistrasse 73
CH-8006 Zurich

Phone +41 (0)44 634 28 31