Papa Legba, open the gate / Open the gate / To let us come in.
In a Vodou ceremony, the deity Legba serves as the gatekeeper, barring anyone from connecting to other spirits in the immortal world without first going through him.
In UCLA's "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou," the dozen featured artists are gatekeepers themselves, with their art opening doors to an enigmatic religion often misconstrued to mean zombies, pins stuck in dolls and other kinds of black magic.
"We wanted people to have a better sense of Haitian culture and Vodou's place in that culture . . . to break the stereotypes people have of Vodou," said Don Cosentino, co-curator of the exhibit and a professor of African and Caribbean folklore at UCLA.
Despite government attempts to repress it, Vodou is the predominant religion of Haiti. The word, often spelled "voodoo" by Americans, means "spirit" in the African language of Fon, the mother tongue of many slaves brought to Haiti. It is a religion of many deities, called lwas, which personify nature, ancestors or aspects of human personalities.
The show, which appears at the university's Fowler Museum, draws from the works of some of Haiti's most celebrated artists, such as painter Hector Hyppolite and sculptor Georges Liautaud, as well as a handful of unknown artists. It includes iron sculpture, assemblage and paintings (many of which depict lwas ), as well as ceremonial flags, ritual objects and replicas of a Vodou temple and Vodou altars.
"This is the first exhibit to contextualize Haitian art," said Edouard Duval Carrie, whose paintings are featured in the exhibit and who was in Los Angeles for its opening. "[It shows] the connection between Vodou as a religion and its influence on artists as individuals."
For many of the exhibit's artists, Vodou is an inextricable part of their identity. It is through their connection to the lwas that they are inspired to create, almost as an offering to the spirits. Several artists are ougans (Vodou priests or priestesses) and a few create their work primarily for Vodou temples rather than for a world market.
"These are not commercial artists for the most part," Cosentino said. "Most of these people have never traveled outside Haiti, although their work may be known worldwide."
Carrie, 41, is one of only a handful of Haitian artists who have exhibited thier work beyond Haiti's borders; he has had shows in Paris, New York, San Diego and Los Angeles. His paintings are laced with Vodou themes and symbols, but also comment on Haitian politics, especially the famously corrupt and despotic Duvalier regime.
In "The Mardi Gras of Fort Dimanche," which shows Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier in a wedding/baptismal dress with his family and Haiti's archbishop, Carrie examines how the Duvaliers manipulated Catholicism and Vodou to their political advantage.
"In Haiti you are always surrounded by art the same way you are surrounded by Vodou and politics," Carrie said. "You never escape any of it, it is part of you, whether you learn it in a school or on the street."
Carrie was one of few Haitian artists who learned his craft in a school, studying painting in Paris. Most Haitian artists, including several of the renowned artists like Hector Hyppolite, inherit the tradition from relatives, friends or artists on the street.
Hyppolite, a Vodou priest, was a house-painter and cobbler before 1945, when surrealist Andre Breton opened Le Centre d'Art in Port-au-Prince and unleashed what became known to the international art world as the Haitian Renaissance.
Hyppolite, then 51, painted nonstop for the next two years, creating nearly 300 works before dying in 1948. More than 12 of his paintings, which interweave Vodou and Catholic symbols, are exhibited in UCLA's show.
"Hyppolite is the master of them all," said Carrie.
Andre Pierre, who is represented by "Vodou Pantheon" and other paintings in the show, is another Vodou priest and acclaimed artist who arose during the generation of painters following Hyppolite.
Despite his international reputation, Pierre, now in his 80s, still lives simply in a village north of Port-au-Prince. His home is a mud house similar to houses in West Africa; his easel stands beneath a bower of trees.
"Before I paint, I take this canvas and I put it on the easel," Pierre told interviewers in 1986. "I wait for an inspiration, before describing it on earth. Then an inspiration comes. I sing a song, and then I describe what I sang. I describe the song on canvas."
While Pierre, Hyppolite and Carrie depict Vodou and Haitian art through painting, Pierrot Barra (also a priest) uses a different medium, piecing together his work from recycled trash: dolls, sequins, toys, furniture. Cosentino recently discovered Barra, 53, in Port-au-Prince's chaotic Iron Market, where the artist owns a stall called Pharmacie Magique from which he sells his art as well as Vodou remedies.