African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power

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9780226058580: African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power
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Beads, bones, rags, straw, leather, pottery, fur, feathers and blood—these are the raw materials of vodun artworks. The power of these images lies not only in their aesthetic, and counter-aesthetic, appeal but also in their psychological and emotional effect. As objects of fury and force, these works are intended to protect and empower people and cultures that have long been oppressed.

In this first major study of its kind, Suzanne Preston Blier examines the artworks of the contemporary vodun cultures of southern Benin and Togo in West Africa as well as the related voudou traditions of Haiti, New Orleans, and historic Salem, Massachusetts. Blier employs a variety of theoretically sophisticated psychological, anthropological, and art historical approaches to explore the contrasts inherent in the vodun arts—commoners versus royalty, popular versus elite, "low" art versus "high." She examines the relation between art and the slave trade, the psychological dynamics of artistic expression, the significance of the body in sculptural expression, and indigenous perceptions of the psyche.

Throughout, Blier pushes African art history to a new height of cultural awareness that recognizes the complexity of traditional African societies as it acknowledges the role of social power in shaping aesthetics and meaning generally. This book will be of critical importance not only to those concerned with African, African American, and Caribbean art, but also to anthropologists, African diaspora scholars, students of comparative religion and comparative psychology, and anyone fascinated by the traditions of voudou and vodun.

"An extraordinary tour de force."—Choice

"Extraordinarily detailed....Blier's examination of the entire, often mysterious history of vodun is...in a word, definitive."—Booklist

"A serious study that concentrates on the hidden power of objects and the meaning behind that potency is long overdue. Welcome Susan Blier's African Vodun....Certainly a must for...those concerned with the psychology of art."—Janet L. Stanley, Art Documentation

"[Blier] is usually sensitive to the need to resist imposing Western artistic values and academic methodologies inappropriately upon such art. But she offers the reader a gift even more precious; she offers rare insights into how various art forms—sculpture and home architecture in particular—yield meanings for the African users of such art.—Norman Weinstein, Boston Book Review

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About the Author:

Suzanne Preston Blier is professor of African art and architecture in the department of fine arts at Harvard University.

From Booklist:

Blier has compiled an extraordinarily detailed and complex study of the vodun art of two West African countries, Benin and Togo. Her thorough analysis begins with an extended discussion of the philosophy of vodun that includes an intriguing set of possible etymologies of the word itself. The upshot is that vodun teaches "patience, calmness, respect, and order"--acceptance, that is, of what life brings--but it is not fatalistic. While composure is valued, so is action, and that's where ritual and the making and using of vodun art objects enter the picture. Vodun sculptures fall into two categories: the bochio, which are figurative, and the bo, which are objects, sometimes called fetishes or gris-gris. Neither are concerned with beauty, but, instead, focus on the grotesque, the unfathomable, and the frightful. Constructed of a broad range of raw materials, including wood, cloth, feathers, fur, straw, pottery, cowries, chains, bones, and even blood, these sculptures are activated or empowered for use in healing, protection, or effecting change. Blier's examination of the entire, often mysterious history of vodun arts from both cultural and psychological perspectives is, in a word, definitive. Donna Seaman

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