Christian missionaries and Hollywood myths misrepresent the nature of voodoo, discovers Robin Lee as a new exhibition of images from Haiti comes to Glasgow.
The popular conception of voodoo is that of a dark, vengeful cult, where witch doctors stick pins in dolls, evil priests turn their enemies into zombies, and the possessed writhe and jerk to a relentless drumbeat. World-renowned photojournalist Les Stone, a veteran of war zones and conflict points, has visited Haiti extensively over the last two decades and now presents an exhibition of evocative photographs showing the religion and its festivals.
Of the three clichés, Stone believes the last is grounded in truth. ‘I’ve spoken to people afterwards and they have no memory whatsoever. These people consider possession by the spirits to be extremely real,’ he explains. ‘The voodoo doll thing is a myth made up by Hollywood. One of the James Bond movies, Live and Let Die, had a voodoo aspect to it. You will find sacred trees around Haiti, and the dolls are nailed to them - they’re actually fertility pieces.’
When Africans were brought over to Haiti as slaves, they used Christianity as a cover to continue to practise voodoo, leading to a bizarre mix of faiths, termed synchretism. ‘There’s a complete mixture with Catholicism,’ says Stone. ‘At the time the slaves hid their beliefs as they’d be whipped and killed if they were found to be practising voodoo, because it was also a political statement.’ In fact, it’s believed that a slave rebellion in 1791 was sparked by a voodoo ceremony, and led to the establishment of Haiti as the first black Caribbean republic in 1804.
Many of the photographs in the exhibition are striking. In one, a man wearing Mickey Mouse-branded sunglasses balances a child’s skull on his head: there is little distinction between life and death in the religion. In another, two eyes pop out of a face coated in mud, sinking into a gloopy puddle. He’s smoking a cigarette too - why? ‘A cigarette is not a cigarette necessarily, it’s actually an offering. Tobacco plays an important role: Baron Samedi, the gatekeeper of the ceremony, smokes cigars. He’s almost always portrayed with a top hat and a cigar. They use mud as a cleansing ritual.’
Inspired, I make it my mission to seek out voodoo practitioners in Scotland - not an easy task. As far I know, none of our cities have Haitian quarters, and I’ve never stumbled across a colourful, noisy parade celebrating life and death in the same breath while stalking homeward along Leith Walk, hunched against the dreich skies. Did Les Stone know of any followers here? No. Alison Kelly, curator of world religions at St Mungo Museum? No.
And then it clicked. There was one man who could guide me through the nexus linking Haiti and Scotland: the Reverend Obadiah Steppenwolfe III, comic creation of Jim Moir, and Southern Baptist preacher turned dabbler in the dark arts. He has a skull atop his walking cane! He’s cursed many a young virgin! Except he wasn’t returning my calls; what a pain in the neck. And in the arse. Ow, and in the leg! Ouch! Stop sticking those pins in, Rev, I promise I won’t bother you again!
Vivid Voodoo, St Mungo Museum, Glasgow, until Sun 14 Jan. October is Black History Month. See www.glasgowmuseums.com for events.