Thursday, May 03, 2001

She's Your Little Voodoo Dolly.

The Inuit museum of Outsider Art in Chicago is currently running an exhibit of Vodun (voodoo) altars and tapestries. Outsider Art (or Art Brut) are the drawings and sculptures done by people on the fringes of society. The religious, the psychics, seers, and the insane are all practitioners. Outsider Art can be primitive and naïve--drawings that a five year old might make--or it can be as complex as any formally trained artists' work. It often resembles automatic writing. Random squiggles and doodles, messages from the spirit world, that sort of thing. It is almost always otherworldly and creepy. The late Chicago Harry Darger was one such artist. After work, he'd return to his room and add more to his unfinished epic novel, THE VIVIAN GIRLS. This novel, told in prose, and illustrations, was the story of the 7 Vivian Girls fighting against child slavery on an another planet. Images of the US Civil War, drawings from '20s and '30s children's primers are pasted against Darger's colorful alien landscapes. Bits and pieces of his madness creep in, as well. Many of the girls have male genitalia. Some of them have butterfly wings. It's a snapshot of a fevered imagination.

For the current exhibit, Inuit expands the current notion of Outsider Art to include contemporary functional art. Images sacred to Vodun are displayed, both artistic representations and actual 'altars.' These objects of worship are made from makeshift odds and ends. This is wholly appropriate, considering the nature of the religion. Vodun, like Santeria, is a hybrid religion, which melds the African pantheon to Western Christianity. Dolls are the most frequently used materials. The commercial, plastic toys are recontextualized and grafted onto the religions' framework. For instance, there was a display of babydoll heads stuffed in clear glass bottles. A Cabbage Patch head is wrapped up in the coils of a felt snake. Barbie's face is painted black and her hair replaced by feathers, her pupils are demonic red dots. Another sculpture features a dolls head spattered with blood. The tapestries and quilts are vibrant bursts of color. Mostly made of beads, they show representations of the Vodun pantheon, from the sea goddess Erzulie to the god of life and death, Ghede. Like their sculptural brothers and sister, they are an amalgam of the whimsical and the horrific. Ghede stands at a crossroads in one tapestry, dressed in a dapper dark suits with cool shades over his eyes. His monstrous penis hangs from his open fly, a lewd and prehensile thing. Others show Erzulie as the Black Madonna, with a scar. Others show her as a benign mermaid. It's a disturbing, inventive and inspiring exhibit.