Given the surging interest in African art, it's surprising that Vodun: African Voodoo is the first art exhibition of its kind. It's worth the wait.
Fon vodun sculpture. Wood, rope, bones, duck skull, metal, terracotta, shells, beads, feathers, cloth, hair, plants. Photo Yuji Ono.
The Fondation Cartier presents a collection from Jacques and Anne Kerchache of nearly 100 objects of statuary, or bocio; the word means "empowered (bo) cadaver (cio)" in the Fon language of Benin. These bocio, mostly from Togo and Benin, fulfill two cultural goals: to protect their owners from danger, and to exact revenge on those who have harmed the owners.
Nago and Fon Vodun sculptures, Benin (23.5 x 4.5 x 5 cm, 18.5 x 5.5 x 5 cm, 20 x 4 x 3 cm, 18 x 4 x 5.5 cm, 20 x 4 x 4 cm). Wood, rope, clay, sacrificial patina. Collection Anne and Jacques Kerchache. Photo © Yuji Ono
The most common of the bocio genre is bla-bacio (above), African statuary in which the object is wrapped tightly with rope or cord. Although these bocio may suggest sexual bondage, bondage also has associations with death and personal problems like imprisonment or impotence; more positively, Benin women believed that wearing a cord around the waist protected a fetus from miscarriage.
Because bocio are a liaison with the spiritual, they are created with sacred materials like claws, feathers and animal skulls, as in the Fon vodun work above (top of page). Jacques Kerchache was instrumental in elevating opinion about African art from "primitive art" to appreciation of its unique aesthetic value. It was Kerchache's passion for African art which spurred creation of the Louvre's Pavillon des Sessions to house artwork of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.
One of Kerchache's favorite pieces was The Chariot of Death, which features a double-faced person seemingly walking two crocodile
skulls with linked leashs. Although its intent isn't immediately apparent, Kerchache stressed the relativity of any interpretation:
"Depending on the clan or family origins of the local informant, the statue will have different meanings and its attributions will be as variable as the homogeneity of the group observed. Since myths change, the interpretation of a myth will also change."
It's a potent reminder of humankind's endless fascination with the afterlife, and of each culture's attempt to unravel its mysteries. For those of you preparing for the May art history exam, how about contemplating the ways in which different cultures represent death and possible afterlife?