Vodun’s Visuals

Conflict and Cooperation / Vodun’s Visuals
Vodun's Visuals (Working Title)

Niklas Wolf

Visuals visualize the otherwise intangible. They use material culture, images or modes of display intentionally to make networks between human and non human actors, between different localities and realms they occur in, ideas, curatorial or spiritual narratives and even Vodun visible. The performative and publicly accessible display of the potentially powerful imagery of West African Vodun is a crucial part of their spiritual practice. While there are many ways for Vodun to manifest (performance (especially drumming), body art, verbal art, herbal knowledge e.g.), this study is focusing on the display of Vodun within wall paintings (shrines), exhibitions (museums) and photography (photobooks). 

Vodun synthesize and accumulate content, form, and material which they have encountered and continue to encounter in various inner-African and global contact zones (Pratt 1999). One characteristic of Vodun (meaning religious or spiritual knowledge systems, spirits and their pictorial objects at the same time) is their openness to visual and material influences. 

Methods and terms of Western art history allow general understandings of images and their interaction with their audiences like images being visual representations, signifiers, more or less independent actors in human based networks (Gell 1998) or even developing their own will (Mitchell 2006). In the contexts of Western art history, material manifestations of Vodun and their ways of working (which are related to their aesthetics too) have often and quite intentionally been misinterpreted, objectified in the true sense of the word, exoticized or fetishized (Adjei 2019). Besides from constantly changing and opening up to new discourses surrounding them, the second main characteristic of Vodun's imagery is their ability to not only blur visual, spiritual and theoretical borders between the signifier and the signified but to force the literal coincidence of the two by actively transgressing those borders, which makes them most interesting for visual studies. 

Thirdly and furthermore, by storing and actively inscribing specific pictorial knowledge, by making history (Hill 2018), they acquire mnemonic functions as well as sacred and secular meaning. Vodun seem to be able to connect places of their appearance through fluid global and local networks and intentional modes of display, especially since usually the processes of Vodun and its imagery are constantly in a state of being unfinished (Rush 2010). The epistemologies of Vodun, their potential to archiving and releasing knowledge, are strongly connected with the everyday life of practitioners. 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.

Priests and priestesses of Vodun shrines in West Africa deliberately make use of the epistemological powers of Vodun. Publicly displayed images of spirits, practitioners, their visual and material culture as well as their specific powers, represent the intangible networks of Vodun, making them tangible on the walls of a shrine. In an educative manner written designations often name the Vodun, specify their connections and powers, forming a site specific architecture of knowledge. The drawn representations of spirits and practitioners are strongly connected and a visual guidance to the actual manifestations of Vodun, some of which are on public display (or are going public during possession e.g.) as well, while others are not accessible to the uninitiated. Currently new, international images emerge on the walls of shrines. Those are often made available to Vodun using markers of foreignness which also seem to nobilize them, making them part of local and global historiographies (Vannier et al. 2016; Venkatachalam 2017).

Via the routes of the Black Atlantic (Gilroy 1993) Vodun and their spiritual knowledge entered international spaces. They hence adapted to new environments, visually and content wise (Thompson 1983). As a result they were globalized but also often stereotyped at the same time. Especially in Western collections they were immobilized and mistreated, in (mostly) Western publications misrepresented, even re-scripted to follow colonial narratives (as they have been in West Africa by Christianity and its structural whiteness (Landry 2019: 3; Meyer 1999; Adjei 2019)). Western museums - semiophores (Pomian 1988) and ergo secular architectures of knowledge production - as well as publications often deliberately used specific modes of display to literally frame Vodun in alienating ways. The equally powerful medium of photography was and still is often used in exhibitions, catalogues or photobooks to provide evidence for hegemonic ideas but instead displays proof of visually re-scripting Vodun as well as of the visual reproduction of power relations and their dynamics in research and curatorial practices. 

However especially in recent times photography - a powerful and never neutral medium full of intentions - has been and is used in digital and analog spaces to research, revaluate, digitize, display, and again globalize, contemporary Vodun. For example West African shrines are entering online spaces to reclaiming Vodun by visually educating about their powers and practices through photography. These digital imageries are not only reminiscent of the equally intentional wall paintings in West African shrines, they are furthermore accessible worldwide, addressing local and global audiences at the same time; they can be read and understood by the ones initiated into the practices of social media. The camera not only fixates and translates ephemeral practices (Zillinger 2013) of Vodun. It also is an instrument to combine artistic and academic modes of knowledge production. Researcher and artist Sela Kodjo Adjei uses photography as an autoethnographic research tool, photographers like Laeïla Adjovi, Nicola Lo Calzo and Cristina de Middel very consciously use photography and the medium of the photobook to examine and revaluate Vodun's imagery by translating them into international art spaces. Methods of art and academia start to overlap within decidedly contemporary forms of displaying Vodun. 

While Western curators still use the very specific and mostly misused term Voodoo - a term that often “is fraught with racist categories about black religious practice […]” (Desmangles 2012: 26) - to frame the multitude of spiritual practices, networks and epistemologies of Vodun, artistic and academic research starts to highlight the many meanings of Vodun in a globalized world. Contemporary institutions of displaying African spirituality, like the Nkyinkyim Museum in Ada (Ghana), are rewriting those narratives, opening up international spaces between the sacred and the secular, leaving terminological and functional restrictions of the museum as well as the ones of a shrine behind. 

This project is not even trying to analyze or fully understand the spiritual ways and workings of Vodun. Using methodologies and terms of mainly art history it aims at a critical understanding of the various contemporary modes of publicly displaying Vodun in West African shrines / museums (intentionally blurring those lines here), Western museums and photobooks in-between. The interdisciplinary approach of this project is characterized by using methods of visual studies, trying to adopt an intercultural hermeneutic perspective. Re-thinking the history of representing Vodun, questions of material culture, the archive, museology and its methods of display and media will also be addressed. It will understand the public and educative imagery of Vodun in West African shrines as part of knowledge producing architectures by describing rather than interpreting and follow some of the ways of Vodun into the immaterial spaces of the internet. It will then look for their traces in Western museums display, their immobilization and re-activation within those walls of knowledge and ergo the inscription of curatorial narratives into Vodun. It will finally address the representation and revaluation of Vodun in the realms of photographic research, understanding international exhibitions as well as the photobook as a mediums of contemporary display. Ergo questions will be raised about the organization of such images in shrines, museums and photographic collections, their interdependent relations, visual trajectories and itineraries, media and medial processes, and not least their participation in a decidedly contemporary and global collective memory through specific modes of display.

Depiction of Ištar (akkadian name of a Mesopotamian Godess), the Queen of heaven and thunder God in the Mamishie Rasta shrine, Ghana. Photo: Niklas Wolf, 2019
Public display of several Vodun at Honua Adoglos shrine, Ghana. Photo: Niklas Wolf, 2022
Exhibition view (Mami Wata Altar, Museum Soul of Africa), Voodoo, Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum Hildesheim, 19.10.2019 - 27.9.2020. Photo: Niklas Wolf, 2020
Screenshot webpage Afrikan Magick Temple (Accra, Ghana). https://www.afrikanmagicktemple.net/photos, Accessed 24.01.2022
Exhibition view (Laeïla Adjovi: Les Chemins de Yemoja), DakArt, Senegal. Photo: Niklas Wolf, 2022
Nkyinkyim Museum, Ghana. Photo: Niklas Wolf, 2022

Further Readings:

Adjei, Sela Kodjo. Philosophy of Art in Ewe Vodu Religion. Accra: University of Ghana, 2019. Web.
Desmangles, Leslie G. “Replacing the Term ‚Voodoo’ with ‚Vodou’. A Proposal”, Journal of Haitian Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 2012, 26–33. Web.
Gell, Alfred. Art and Agency. An anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. Print.
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso, 1993. Print.
Hill, Elyan Jeanine. Spirited Choreographies. Ritual, Identity, and History-Making in Ewe Performance. Los Angeles: UCLA, 2018. Web.
Landry, Timothy R. Vodún. Secrecy and the Search for Divine Power. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. Print.
Meyer, Birgit. Translating the Devil. Religion and Modernity among the Ewe in Ghana. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. Print.
Mitchell, W.J.T. What do pictures want? The Life and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession, 1991, (pp. 33-40), p. 34. Print.
Rush, Dana. Ephemerality and the ‘Unfinished’ in Vodun Aesthetics. African Arts 43.1 (2010): 60–75. Web.
Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit. African and Afro-American Art & Philosophy. New York: Vintage, 1983. Print.
Vannier, Christian, and Eric James Montgomery. Sacred Slaves: Tchamba Vodu in Southern Togo. Journal of Africana Religions 4.1 (2016): 104. Web.
Venkatachalam, Meera. Slavery, Memory, and Religion in Southeastern Ghana, c. 1850-Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Print.
Zillinger, Martin. Die Trance, das Blut, die Kamera. Trance-Medien und Neue Medien im marokkanischen Sufismus. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2013. Print.