Baron Samedi’s Rituals of Sex and Death Rule the Fowler Museum’s In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st Century Haitian Art
West African Diasporic Religions—especially santeria and that all-American version, hoodoo—are important aspects of my belief system, and have been for decades, spawned by my Southern roots and fascination with Haiti, where the syncretic religion Vodou (popularly known as “voodoo”), combination of West African faiths and Catholicism, was one of the driving forces in the island’s slave rebellion and Haiti’s subsequent birth as an albeit troubled nation.
So when Cindy invited me to join her and her parents on a private tour of “In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st Century Haitian Art” at the UCLA’s Fowler Museum during Art Platform, with a lecture by co-curator Patrick A. Polk, I was so stoked and leapt at the chance. Cindy’s parents, Richard and Sande Schwarzstein owned a major art gallery in Haiti during the 1970s with the dashing and erudite poet and author Selden Rodman, and are serious collectors. Me, I have two sequined drapeaux (prayer flags), an altar made from battery casings, plus some sequined offering bottles—not super extensive.
“In Extremis” explores the Haitian artists responses and reactions to the island nation’s modern crises, focusing on Bawon Samdi (Baron Samedi, also known as Baron La Croix or Bawon Lakwa in Haitian Creole), the elegantly dressed, top-hatted Vodou divinity who presides over the cemetery, death, birth, sex, and rebirth; his wife Grann Brijit; and their offspring the Gede, mischievous tricksters in black (think witches, beatniks, rock and rollers, Goth kids, the anarchist Black Bloc) with skull heads.
Atheists may not like hearing this, but religion, and more specifically, humans’ beliefs in, responses to, and reactions towards and against the concept of Divine being/s, form the foundation of all culture as we know it today. You can’t remove religious concepts (and the struggles to change them or negate them) out of architecture, art, music, literature, philosophy, or film.
The temples of Asia, India, Meso-America, Babylon and Egypt; Europe and the Middle East’s synagogues, cathedrals, mosques; the sculptures of ancient gods and goddesses, the Book of Kells, the Sistine Chapel, and other works by Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and other classical painters, including those who painted still lifes and vanitas, painters and sculptors whose works span through Abstract Expressionism and into today’s street art and Pop Surrealism; Mozart, Handel, Bach, Beethoven and Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Who and the Rolling Stones—and of course U2, Patti Smith, X, the Germs, Bad Religion and countless other bands—use religious imagery (and at times the structure of church music) to express themselves. You see where I’m going with this, so certainly there’s no need to cite the countless examples in literature, film or philosophy.
So why do we as conscious creatures have a need for/recognition of something supernatural? Quite simply, it’s because we are aware that we die, and from this awareness stems a belief in the afterlife (Neanderthals decorated the graves of their dead, and the belief in an afterlife continues today as a throughline in religions across the globe). If there is something else, well, then there must be Something (s) Else. Oh, and sex can be a religious, near death experience, too. Why else do we whisper and moan, “Oh god, oh god!” and call orgasms le petit mort, the little death?
Which brings us back to “In Extremis,” where sex, death, birth, and rebirth take center stage with Haiti in the 21st century as the theater and Bawon Samdi as the master of ceremonies. Poverty, HIV/AIDS, the devastating earthquake, storms, and again poverty, poverty, poverty. And yes, racism, as Haiti was the first post-colonial black-led nation in the world, as well as the first independent nation.
Richly beaded sequined drapeaux shift from the traditional decorated prayer flags featuring veves (religious sigils) and images of the saints whose familiar faces disguise and empower the African gods to images of HIV/AIDS, the earthquake, and frank sexuality with Bawon Samdi and his Gede children at work and play; or are comprised of found objects—like the African Diasporic Faiths, artists are flexible and will work with what is available.
The centerpiece is a huge drapeau by Myrlande Constant, commissioned by the Fowler for this exhibit. A giant shimmering flag depicts the earthquake, “That Thing That Happened” as the Haitians call it, and its aftermath. Carefully beaded vignettes show the living and the dead, toppled churches and buildings, destroyed lives, while angels fly overhead as Bawon Samdi and Grann Brijit twist and writhe.
Traditional wrought iron sculptures of crosses are mirrored in a giant video installation in the form of a cross playing tapes of life and death in Haiti, while the modern iron working group of the Grand Rue, Atis Rezistans, bears witness to the Bawon’s power with sculptures, including a giant phallus, forged from used automobile parts, old computer components, televisions, medical equipment, clothing and human skulls.
Two works by Jean-Michel Basquiat express contemporary high art’s embrace of the Gede (Basquiat’s father was Haitian), while a portrait of Michael Jackson as Bawon Samdi expresses the core of the exhibit: Haiti’s issues are world issues.
And equally important, “In Extremis; Death and Life in 21st Century Haiti” lays bare that the human experience/knowledge of sex and death, those twin embraces of Bawon Samdi, are the reason we create.
(NOTE: Photos of some of the artwork mentioned was not allowed to be photographed. Please visit the Fowler to see these remarkable pieces and experience the magic of Haiti. All museum photos by Cindy Schwarzstein except 1,2 and 4, courtesy of the of Fowler Museum; and third to last and final shot, Lisa Derrick. Pop culture images via Wikipedia, creative commons license; Fair Use screen shots from the video “Rapture”)“In Extremis; Death and Life in 21st Century Haiti”
Fowler Museum at UCLA
September 15, 2012-January 20, 2013
Open Wednesday-Sunday, noon-5pm; admission is free, though parking is not.
For directions and parking information, please click here.
Baron Samedi is seen in popular culture, take for example, in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die:
He’s also been painted by Shag:
Baron Samedi can be seen in this video by Blondie, which features murals by Jean-Michel Basquiat, who appears as the DJ. The video itself represents a vodou ceremony.
Baron Samedi’s imagery was appropriated Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his paramilitary force, the dreaded tonton macoutes.