I photograph what thrills me, what gives me a blow to the heart, what captivates me. That deceptively simple modus operandi has taken photographer Cristina Garcia Rodero around the world and into some very unsettling locales notably to document occult ceremonies in her native Spain, and in India, Venezuela and Haiti.
In Haiti, theres a common saying: 80 percent of the population is Catholic, 20 percent Protestant, but 100 percent is Vodou. The islands first non-indigenous, non-European residents were brought as slaves from the part of Africa that is todays Benin and they carried their religion with them. Vodou is one of the branches of African-based religion that evolved in the Caribbean and Latin America. It has a 500-year history in Haiti, where many of its original stories and images were hidden from colonial masters behind the colors, symbols and faces of Catholic saints and liturgy.
Rituales en Haiti, the exhibition of photographs by Cristina Garcia Rodero at Miami-Dade Colleges Museum of Art + Design, is an immersive introduction to the diverse practices of Vodou in sites and ceremonies around the country and around the calendar. For those unfamiliar with religious practice involving spirit possession and animal sacrifice, confrontation with some of the exhibitions images can be arresting and even shocking.
Youre hypnotized from the beginning, says Jeremy Mikolajczak, the museums director. Thats one thing about Cristinas work; it has that ability from the get-go. You are transfixed and you are sort of wrapped up into those images mesmerized by them. Obviously, theres some strong content, and some of its challenging for young children, but outside of that theres some really beautiful images that for me personally encapsulate the show.
Mikolajczak has been planning the exhibition in consultation with the Spanish artist and with Spains Consul General, Cristina Barrios, since October, 2011. It took time to decide which, among Roderos numerous bodies of work and when to present. She is one of the most celebrated photographers in the world, he explains, and probably the best known photographer from Spain in the current era. But this is her first solo museum show in the United States and the first time this full exhibition has been shown in this country.
Ultimately, he said, Its timing was perfect, as it coincides with celebrations of Spains 500-year history in Florida and it opened in early December during Miamis Art Week, when the world is your stage.
The stage provided by the museum, in the historic Freedom Tower, is generous and allows 120 images to create a physical, as well as esthetic and emotional experience.
The exhibition all black and white begins with the waterfall series, Saut dEau, a suite of images set in thick tropical foliage with crowds of figures, young and old, in various stages of undress, immersed in cascading streams of waters and bathing in the river they form. As explained by the photographer on her Magnum agency site, This waterfall is the pilgrimage place best representing the syncretism between Catholicism and Vodou. The pilgrims, raising their hands to the sky, ask the Lwas (spirits) of Vodou for favors under the waterfall. On the 16th of July, when tens of thousands of pilgrims gather there, they ask the Virgin, who appeared under the waterfall once, for the same favors in the nearby church built in the 19th century.
This is the historical context. The experience of the photographs is something else. In Mikolajczaks words, As you enter into the exhibition, into the space, there is that removal, that cleansing that happens. You sort of take all the bad and let it wash away, and its about that transformative experience to open your mind, to open your heart, to open your life.
The journey begins here and continues through various sites and ceremonies, each with a different geographical setting, psychological mood and artistic focus.
Plaine du Nord, near the islands north coast, was the location of the 1791 slave revolt that would eventually lead to Haitis independence from France. It also marks the location of a mud basin, considered by the Vodou faithful, to be curative. Believers flock there in late July to immerse themselves. Rodero portrays them in various states of extreme rapture, ranging from beatific states to images of grimacing stiff-armed paralysis, eyes rolled back. Coated in thick mud, some figures resemble those of Pompeii, arrested in time. We see offerings of rum, special herb mixes and food; we also see animals sacrificed, captured in poignant resignation.
Mikolajczak explains, A lot of comments weve had are less about nudity than about the states that the individuals are in, and a lot of people refer to the eyes as the most disturbing thing. For example, theres a woman encased in mud, and you only see zthe silhouette of her face its all monotone stark grays, and you only see the whites of her eyes. However, he says, This is history being documented, and were not here to censor or to judge. Were looking at it from the aspect of this artist going in and having a relationship with her subject.
The nearby ocean shoreline, Bord de Mer provides another setting for cleansing, as worshippers gaze into the waters and roll in apparent ecstasy in its surf. Roderos photos combine vivid documentation of ritual practice with often penetrating portraiture. Its surprising how invisible the artist seems to have been to her subjects, who rarely acknowledge her presence.
Roderos first major series to gain critical attention was her Spanish occult documentation. She has continued to explore religious practice that is outside the mainstream in Cuba, Brazil and India. Rituales en Hait í was selected to represent Spain in the 2001 Venice Biennale. Her career straddles the categories of art, documentary and commercial photography, as she places herself in challenging conditions to capture some far-flung subjects while also creating portraits of Spains royal family in presumably more comfortable surroundings.
Naturally, for Mikolajczak, the local communitys response to the exhibition especially that of Haitian-Americans is vital. Vodou has been both romanticized and vilified in the popular media, mostly by those unfamiliar with its reality.
It's been an interesting dynamic for [Haitians] to come and visit, because they feel very strongly, and some have a more negative reaction and some feel very positive that were bringing this to light, he says. But the consensus view by Haitians, Mikolajczak says, is that this is part of our culture; we cannot deny this. Whether we support it or not is our own prerogative, but this is part of who we are as a people from history.
And those sorts of thematic dialogues are fantastic for the museum to engage in, Mikolajczak says.
Ambassador Barrios colleague, Ana Zabía, who is curator of Madrids Museum of the Americas, praised Roderos achievement of showing the Vodou rituals with respect and trying to get similar respect from the public. The museum engaged Haitian-born artist Jude Papaloko Thegenus to create a large Vodou symbol in pigmented flour on the floor during the opening, and the band Rara Lakays performance added an immersive auditory dimension to the event.
Over the centuries, among Caribbean people of African ancestry, carnival celebrations especially those preceding the Catholic Lenten period of abstinence were marked by raucous revelry.
The photos of Carnival in Jacmel show mens bodies covered with various mixtures of oil, molasses, soot, ash and other colorants to render the participants even darker. Traditionally, masks concealed identity, while music and rum reduced inhibitions and heightened the celebratory, erotic spirit. Some revelers wear bull horns, carry dead snakes and phallic staffs and wrap chains around their bodies all symbols laden with meanings in the sociology of slavery, Christianity and animist religions. The confrontational, carnal aspects of some of these figures contrasts with the contemplative, prayerful photographs of white-garbed women and children, holding candles in patient reverie and the Miracle Calvary of Ganthier, where the faithful raise their arms and ask for miracles.
Those spread arms produce compositional echoes throughout the exhibition. We may see reverberations of Jesus crucifixion; also of Goyas Third of May execution of Spanish citizens. As a plea for help and mercy, the symbol resonates with Haitis struggles.
The Rembrandt-like light within the Caves of St. Francis of Assisi and the biblical timelessness of many scenes are gripping and reinforce the artistry that underlies the documentation.
Gorgeous tonalities from pure light through pitch black masterfully expose religious experience at its most visceral and personal. Some viewers may find that overwhelming or best experienced in modest doses, but the images will linger in the memory and the exhibition is a bold one for the museum.
Rituales en Hait í is also presented in a large format book.