In a religious practice that is often stigmatized and misunderstood, Vodou’s art isn’t sought to be understood deeply by popular culture, but rather mystified and used to further a dark magic narrative. After spending the semester learning about the beliefs and practices of Vodou, it’s become evident to me that though the use of art and ceremony may seem foreign to most Westerners in the form of the practices, they carry a similar purpose to rituals in any religion. Vodou in Afro-Caribbean cultures are a compilation of elements from multiple religions, in part because of European influence during colonization. One parallel is the purpose and practice of honoring Saints in Christianity is similar to spirit worship in Vodou.
Like Saints, spirits are diverse and have their own personalities and place in religious worship. Just like there’s a variety of Saints you can pray to for everything from childbirth to certain professions, in Vodou spirits take on different areas of expertise. In Vodou spirits are if anything more humanlike: from the good to the bad and everything in-between. Offerings are made to these spirits through practices that could be considered as both as art and religious practice. One form of this is with boutey Vodou’s: Vodou bottles. These bottles are intricately decorated and made in tribute to different spirits. Because the spirits themselves are so diverse the form the bottles take can also vary greatly. On the surface they may just look like an interesting art form, but every element of how a bottle is decorated holds a distinct meaning and purpose far beyond just aesthetics.
For my final project in Shaking the Spirit, I set out to create a bottle in tribute of a spirit called Lasyrenn, who is one of three that makes up the group Ezili. I was drawn to representing one of the Ezili’s because they represent the different facets of women’s lives in Haitian culture. The concept of three parts making up a whole multi-dimensional being is also apparent in Catholic ideology of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit, so it’s interesting to see this narrative as well in Haitian Vodou. To give context of the other Ezili’s, Ezili Danto is the hard-working mother spirit, Ezili Freda is the sensual and feminine one, and Lasyrenn is known as a mermaid who portrays African women and water power.
Out of the three, Lasyrenn is the most elusive and the most supernatural in her form. Danto and Freda portray larger than life versions of what could be every day Haitian women, but Lasyrenn serves the purpose of connecting women to their roots. When slaves were taken from Africa to Haiti, they were sent on ships across the sea, so water is seen as symbolic of many Haitians African ancestors. While Lasyrenn may not be directly applicable to the everyday women in her form, her purpose and power is meant to bring strength and connection to women that are living in a immensely patriarchal culture.
In Mama Lola, A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn by Karen McCarthy, Lasyrenn is described as being both mermaid and whale, and existing in the deep sea. Like other mermaids in popular western culture, she is elusive: never fully seen. She is a presence to be felt, beckoning people back to Africa.
For my bottle I decided to take a relatively literal approach to representing Lasyrenn’s presence. It was important to me to use a mix of mediums on my bottle, because that is one of the trademarks of many boutey Vodous. The overall image is that of an ocean scene; starting from the top I water-colored a piece of paper the image of a sky that was rolled into a cork and put in the bottle neck. Then I used tissue paper to represent the sea. I painted the waves to fade from blue to black to represent the deep sea. At the bottom of the bottle you can see just a mermaid tale dipping out of the bottom of the sea, made out of tissue paper and ribbon.
I decided not to show her entire form in order to best portray her elusive nature. Then inside the bottle I emptied a lot of black and blue glitter, some plastic sea shells, and salt water. Many bottles have some sort of inedible liquid in them, and I thought simulating the sea water would be the most appropriate for Lasyrenn. I left the bottom of the bottle uncovered by the tissue paper waves so you can see the contents of the inside of the bottle. That way if you swirl the bottle, if gives the illusion of a churning sea with the glitter and salt water combined. The result of all of these mixed elements combined on the bottle not only serve as an art piece but also portray many symbols that establish it as an offering to Lasyrenn.