Pierrot Barra and his wife Marie Cassaise are the most astonishing artists that the author of this fascinating book has encountered in more than a decade of researching Vodou in Haiti. He discovered them deep in the ramshackle Iron Market of downtown Port-au-Prince where they make and sell what he considers to be the most original Vodou art in the world.
In the glitter and bustle of the market Barra and Cassaise discern the lurking forms of divinities they serve as both priests and artists. From rubber dolls, sunglasses, holy cards, barbecue forks, goats’ horns, speedometers, rosaries, junk jewelry, compact mirrors, Christmas ornaments, crucifixes, sequins, and velour they assemble fantastic sculptures that portray the fiery and potent gods of Haiti.
Inspired through dreams sent by his divine mentor Ogou – generalissimo of the Vodou pantheon – Pierrot tears apart these random commodities and brings them back to new life with pop-it beads and tinselcord. Displaying the power of a magician, he transforms heaps of rubble into glamorous repositories for the capricious and demanding gods who rule his life and guide his work.
This volume focuses on how Barra and Cassaise redefine ancient African-American traditions of sacred art, even as they push those traditions in directions the author views as “postmodern” or “outsider art.” The author warns, however, that no matter how their appreciators may choose to label their art, Pierrot Barra and Marie Cassaise remain deeply Haitian and profoundly Vodou. Their sculptures capture the cultural history of a country sustained by distant memories of Africa, haunted by the imagery of Catholic saints and Masonic regalia, and bewitched by imported Hollywood kitsch. For them, lithographs of the Virgin Mary nestle easily with plastic figurines of Bugs Bunny. Yet even within a tradition open to these sorts of commercial pentecosts, the liberties taken by the artists are breathtaking.
Donald J. Cosentino is chair of the folklore program at UCLA and editor of African Arts magazine.