Voodoo Power, Fetishes, Spirits Haunt Paris Exhibition: Review

Voodoo Sculpture
Voodoo sculptures from the Nago and Fon tribes of Benin, West Africa are on view at the Fondation Cartier. Photographer: Yuji Ono/Fondation Cartier via Bloomberg

Bondage means different things to different people.

For believers in Voodoo it’s not a sexual fantasy. They use it on fetishes to cast spells or to protect themselves against evil spirits.

About 100 African fetishes are on view at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. They come from the collection of the late Jacques Kerchache, a dealer and connoisseur of what used to be known as primitive art.

Kerchache was instrumental in founding the Musee du Quai Branly, opened in 2006, that displays objects from Africa, Oceania and the Americas as works of art, not as ethnological specimens. Some anthropologists demurred, yet the public appreciates the theatrical presentation, and the museum has become a popular attraction.

The Fondation Cartier follows the museum’s example. On the ground floor, the largest sculptures are placed in front of stylized houses, like guardians keeping away evil spirits.

In the low-lit basement, the smaller statuettes are elegantly displayed in glass cubes like rare books or jewelry. No label tells you where they come from and what they mean: The organizers want you to have a purely aesthetic experience.

That approach is utterly different from the original purpose for which the figures were created. They were cult objects and not meant to be beautiful. Some are hideous.

Spirit World

Most of them come from the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, the predecessor of what is now Benin on the coast of West Africa. Here Vaudou or Vodun, as the organizers spell it, the belief in a world of invisible yet potent spirits, was a kind of state religion and a pillar of royal power.

Through the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, the cult was brought to the Caribbean where it shed the fetishes and, instead, absorbed Christian elements.

The fetish -- bocio, or empowered corpse, in the language of the Fon tribe -- is believed to function as a mediator between the visible and the spiritual world. There are different kinds in the exhibition.

The most common is the bla-bocio, whose surface has been tightly bound with cord, chains, strips of animal hide or other wrapping materials.

The bondage can have a positive or negative effect. Neck bindings are supposed to cause speechlessness, chest bindings lead to suffocation, bindings around the lower abdomen to bring about impotence.

On the other hand, pregnant women often wear cords around their hips as a protection against miscarriage.

Two Heads

Fetishes of another type have holes into which pegs or pins are inserted. Depending on the incantation, the peg may promote well-being or, conversely, lead to memory loss and asphyxiation.

A number of fetishes have two heads or other physical abnormalities. Some are covered with clay, shells, bones or a layer of sacrificial blood, each with magical significance.

In 1972, Mathieu Kerekou, president of Benin and a true believer in Marxism-Leninism, declared war on Voodoo. Afraid to fall victim himself to a magic spell, he appointed a wizard as “People’s Commissar for Fetish Cultures.”

Predictably, the War on Voodoo proved no more successful than the War on Terror and the War on Drugs.

“Vaudou” runs through Sept. 25 at the Fondation Cartier, 261 Boulevard Raspail, Paris. Information: http://www.fondation.cartier.com or +33-1-4218-5650.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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