Shannon Taggart’s ‘Basement Vodou’ photo series is a continuation of her fascination with rituals and religion. For years she’s been documenting spiritualists in upstate New York and in this series she explores the arcane and often misunderstood Haitian religion of Vodou. Like many documentaries of this kind Taggart had to find a way in and for this series the door was opened by a female Vodou priest, or Mambo, called Rose Marie Pierre who runs a temple in the basement of a small shop in Brooklyn, New York.
This basement is the scene for her series; the priests and laymen undergoing possession by the Loa — powerful spirits that act as intermediaries between humankind and Vodou’s distant god, Bondye. Vodou rituals are mostly concerned with contacting the spirits and having them summoned, consulted and appeased. This act of summoning requires elaborate preparations depending on who the spirit is including the believers placing offerings on an altar and then indicating which particular spirit they wish summoned by drawing its ‘vever’, or symbol, in cornmeal sprinkled on the floor. Dancing and songs then bring the Loa to life and when the spirit finally possesses the worshipper everything becomes wild and intense. Here’s how Taggart describes it:
There is screaming and thrashing…sometimes [congregants] run around the room as if confused. It can happen suddenly, so it’s often jarring. People immediately gather around the one possessed and assist them with what they need and catch them if they collapse. Mambo Rose Marie is always surprised (sometimes shocked) to see my documentation of what has taken place while she was possessed.
Vodou has been ridiculed and maligned in Western culture for hundreds of years – no surprise there I hear you say- but there are a few myths that we can put to bed right now. Firstly, animal sacrifice is not arbitrary nor cruel rather the sacrifices are made to rejuvenate the spirits after the ceremony and all chickens, pigs, goats and cows are killed humanely and eaten immediately. It probably derived – like most religious rituals – out of cultural necessity. In Haiti, where there was no safe way to store meat, the practice provided people with a regular source of safe nourishment.
Seceondly, the presence of weapons in Vodou ceremonies. Weapons are not used to harm others. Instead, they are relics of Haitian slavery that Vodou practitioners have appropriated as symbols of their faith in the same way that the cross is a relic of Christian persecution.
This is a fascinating documentary series and there are alot more images for you to see on Taggarts site. I suggest you do.
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