The Art of Prayer by Ned Sublette

Part of the Profiles and Positions series.

BOMB 90 Winter 2005
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Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Musicians in a Vodou rara band play as they approach the sacred mud pool at Plaine du Nord during the Vodou-Catholic pilgrimage honoring St. James of Compostela and the Vodou spirit of war and iron, Ogou, on July 24, 2004. Vodou became an officially recognized religion in Haiti last year. Photo by Daniel Morel.

For the enslaved Africans whose labor made the French colony of Saint-Domingue one of the richest places on earth—before they rose up, burning the sugar plantations and the theaters and ultimately renaming the territory Haiti—art and religion were not separate. In post-Enlightenment Europe, art could be a place to safely contain the magical and religious impulses displaced by the new passion for science. Our concert halls and museums have the air of secular temples, and attending a modern dance performance can feel like witnessing a ceremony in the religion of art. But even to use the words art and religion is misleading, if one expects the European implications of those concepts to accompany them to Haiti.

The artistic power of Haiti is expressed in the system of belief and action called Vodou. Practitioners create elaborate altars, sew flags, draw vèvès on the ground with cornstarch, make clothes and objects, and prepare ritual meals, uniting the arts in ceremony to create grand events that can last for days. It is a kind of sacred theater in which elaborate symbolic actions are performed and divine figures speak and act through humans. It is a danced religion; the first published description of vaudoux in Haiti, by M. L. E. Moreau de St. Méry in 1797, referred to it as a danse (adding, “but it is not only as a dance that vaudoux merits consideration”). Celebrants sing in ancestral languages, the meaning of whose words they may not know, but whose syllables they guard through force of memory. The drummers play selections from a vast, painstakingly learned repertoire of rhythm and percussive speech whose origins are ancient—a treasure of human patrimony that lives on in Haiti. It’s not art for sale or exhibit—though that exists too—but fully functional magical art. It’s prayer, and at the same time it is intimately connected to medicine, war, business, history, family, and social structure.

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A vèvè. Courtesy of Michael Zwack.

Many distinct African traditions came together in Saint-Domingue, but two came to dominate: the Dahomeyan and the Kongo. The myriad spirits, or Iwa (a Kongo word), whom believers serve, are grouped in nanchons, or nations. The name of the best-known of these, rada, makes clear its link to Arada (also written ArdraAllada, etc.), a territory that became part of the militaristic Dahomeyan empire. Foddun, the word for the spirits in the Fon language of Dahomey, became vodun, the name of the religion in Haiti. But there are other nanchons from up and down the West African coast. The nanchon called petro (from the Spanish Pedro) is seemingly a Haitian creation. The art is replete with influences from Europe, other parts of the Caribbean, the indigenous Taínos and certainly from Catholicism, but also Freemasonry. Vodou can make use of everything. And Vodou is all that many people in Haiti have.

The Haitian Revolution—a complicated, prolonged cataclysm on a tiny piece of land—produced a dramatic change in the life of the entire hemisphere. The French Revolution provided the green light for it, and the two struggles, metropolitan and colonial, were inextricably bound together. Mainstream US and European historians consistently underemphasized the Haitian Revolution, provoking the Trinidadian C. L. R. James, in The Black Jacobins (1938)—still one of the best books on the subject—to argue for its status as a major historical event.

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Peniel Gurrier (right), a dancer interviewed in this issue, is also a Vodou dummer. Photo by Marilyn Sylla.

When Boukman Jetty began his slave revolt of August 1791, perhaps two-thirds of the French colony’s slaves had been born in Africa, and some had been soldiers in gun-toting African armies. They unleashed the most radical revolution of a revolutionary era, one aimed at smashing the slavery system. Refugees—whites, free people of color, and black slaves—fled the carnage. The largest number, maybe 30,000, went right across the water to Cuba, where they transformed the Spanish island’s agriculture, arts, and politics. Others dispersed down the Caribbean, along the Gulf coast and up the Atlantic seaboard. In 1794, following the lead of its colonial commissioner Sonthonax, France responded to the uprising by doing the unthinkable: it declared all people in its colonies emancipated, ending slavery completely. Napoleon later reinstated it, but could not do so in Haiti: his troops were beaten back by yellow fever, a mass mobilization of black soldiers ready to die, and firm leadership, most famously that of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

L’Ouverture was lured to a parley by the French and kidnapped; he died of cold and hunger in a French mountain prison in April 1803. After that, a war of mutual extermination ensued. The final period of the campaign saw the slaughter of entire villages by the French. By the time the independent Haitian republic came into being on January 1, 1804, perhaps 150,000 people (some estimates are double that; the true number can never be known) had died in the course of the conflict. With the new republic established, L’Ouverture’s successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, went from town to town, systematically massacring the French remaining in the territory, before being crowned Emperor of Haiti.

There is a postscript to the Haitian Revolution that is directly relevant to US culture. In 1808, Napoleon’s forces invaded Spain, and as a consequence, some 10,000 Saint-Domingan refugees in Cuba, many of whom had been there ten years or more, were expelled upon refusing to take a loyalty oath to Spain. They left Cuba in 1809 in a flotilla to New Orleans, by then a US territory, where there was already a community of Domingans. The new arrivals doubled the size of New Orleans almost overnight, permanently altering its character and making voodoo a prominent feature of the town’s culture. Sanité Dedé, the legendary first voodoo queen of New Orleans, was from Saint-Domingue. So was the naturalist and painter John James Audubon. New Orleans native Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the most celebrated American musician of the 19th century, was the grandson of a refugee; jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton was Haitian-descended on both sides.

The example of Haiti blunted the ambitions of the European colonial powers in the New World, and inspired uprisings, rumors of revolts, and repression throughout the slave territories. President John Adams, a non-slaveowning New Englander, had given covert military aid to Toussaint L’Ouverture. But his political opponent and successor, Virginia slaveowner Thomas Jefferson, withheld US recognition from the new republic, though he had previously defended the recognition of the bloody French Revolution. Before the French Revolution Saint-Domingue had been the infant United States’s second biggest trading partner, and, indeed, the Haitians’ defeat of Napoleon made possible the great achievement of Jefferson’s presidency, the Louisiana Purchase. But apparently fearing contact between revolutionary Haitians and their brethren in the plantation south, Jefferson implemented a commercial embargo of the black republic, over the objections of northern merchants, that lasted from 1806 to 1810. It took until 1862, on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation, for Haiti to be belatedly recognized by Lincoln’s administration.

France recognized Haiti only at the price of an exorbitant indemnification for its losses, which the tiny country paid to the great one in installments, year in and year out for decades, impoverishing itself further in the process. Haiti sank into poverty as phenomenal as the wealth it had produced during slavery days. For much of the time since, Haiti’s condition has ranged from miserable to infernal, in the face of neglect and even malevolence on the part of the international community.

Older Haitians can remember an economic boom after the Second World War, when the country was a tourist destination. During that period, professional Haitian artists came to international attention. Central to the work of these artists and their successors is the richly metaphorical, endlessly inventive visual culture of Haiti. You can see its influence in the diaspora generations as well, most famously in the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat (Haitian father, Puerto Rican mother). The Haitians outside Haiti, known as the “Tenth Department” and concentrated in Miami, New York, Montréal, Boston, Paris, and Santo Domingo, provide lifelines for family and friends back home. For all the work of artists, anthropologists and dreamers who have penetrated Haiti, the country is still largely uncharted territory for outsiders, as if it were on the other side of what Kongo people called the kalunga line—the horizon separating the living from the dead, the visible from the invisible, the air from the water. Haitians living abroad travel back and forth across that line regularly, taking into themselves the force of the blow of the contradictions.

Today Haiti’s people suffer everything from political gang war to catastrophic floods. Public health is abysmal and public schools are shut down. After the coup d’état of February 2004, when the elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced into exile by the Bush administration, things went from terrible to even worse. The subsequent collapse resembles the ongoing disaster in Iraq following the US invasion, but it is back-page news if it is reported at all. The country has experienced its worst level of human rights violations in many years. Political arrests are common, and hundreds of people have been killed in the streets.

But it is on the hazardous home ground that the culture is full-strength. In the face of so much madness and destruction, Haitians pray. They practice their artistic religion, and in doing so they exercise their creativity. One day that creativity will be an important force in putting Haiti right. That is not too much to pray for.

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An altar in the New York apartment of Michael Zwack, Vodou high priest and artist. Photo by Aric Mayer.

Ned Sublette is the author of Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press). He is a 2004–2005 Tulane Rockefeller Humanities Fellow at Tulane University’s Stone Center for Latin American Studies.

Michael Zwack by Ned Sublette
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Originally published in

BOMB 90, Winter 2005

Featuring interviews with Vargas-Suarez Universal and Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, Vladimir Cybil and Jerry Philogene, Carlos Eire and Silvana Paternostro, David Scott and Stuart Hall, Evelyne Trouillot, Sibylle Fisher, Carlos B. Cordova and Daniel Flores y Ascencio, Damas “Fanfan” Louis and Michael Zwack, and Peniel Guerrier and Yvonne Daniel. 

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