Marepe (Marcos Reis Peixoto), Auréolas (Halo), 2004; bulbs, electric wire, sockets; diameter 127 inches; courtesy the artist, Anton Kern Gallery, New York and Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo; photo by Adam Reich; © Anton Kern Gallery
Regina José Galindo, Confesión (Confession), 2007; performance commissioned by Galería Caja Blanca, Palma de Mallorca; Lambda print on Forex; 32 1/16 x 49 inches; courtesy the artist and Prometeo Gallery di Ida Pisani, Milan; © Regina José Galindo
Conjuring and conjuration are at the heart of NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith, curated by the Menil Collection’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Franklin Sirmans. The title means to summon forth by some unseen power, to affect or influence, to bring to mind, to evoke, to imagine or picture in the mind. But there is a more archaic definition as well: to entreat solemnly, to appeal to by oath.
The title of the exhibit comes from African-American writer Ishmael Reed. In 1969, Reed published “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” a poem in which he asserts the import of primal (for lack of a better term) religions, the indigenous beliefs and cultural traditions of Native Americans and of the Africans who were transported here as slaves—traditions forced underground by the hegemony of Western European culture and Christianity. There they found expression in the syncretic cultures (“religions” seems limiting) of Santería, Candomblé, Voodoo and, in the United States, Hoodoo, in addition to the sustained resistance found in the continued practice of Native-American traditions.
Reed, in his manifesto, invokes these “underground” traditions (underground to whom?) to challenge Western notions of supremacy. As he puts it in “Black Power Poem,” which immediately precedes “Manifesto” in my copy of his most recent volume of collected poems: “A spectre is haunting America – / the spectre of neo-hoodooism. . . .may the best church win. shake hands now and come / out conjuring.
The title of Sirmans’ catalogue essay, “Recapturing Spirit in Contemporary Art,” reveals his parallel interests and intentions with NeoHooDoo, and the viewer is ushered into the exhibit by two works with obvious spiritual references: Brazilian artist Marepe’s Auréoles (Halos) and James Lee Byars’ The Halo. Marepe’s work, lying on the floor just outside the entrance, is comprised of eleven circular fluorescent lights. These illuminated “halos” are arranged in a circle and powered by a hidden source beneath the floorboards. This work was created on the occasion of Marepe’s first solo show in New York—an opportunity for him to address a commemoration to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. But in 2004, there was another attack to commemorate as well: the 3/11 attacks on Madrid’s transportation system that killed 191 people and wounded another 1,755. With Marepe’s transformation of humble light fixtures into a touching memorial—along with the immanence suggested by Byars’ eight-foot-wide brass halo just inside the entrance—the theme of NeoHooDoo is set.
With some fifty works by thirty-three artists, the exhibition sprawls through the Menil’s galleries, making for some interesting juxtapositions. Columna Infinita, by the Cuban artist Kcho (Alexis Leyva Machado), is made up of rusted and decrepit boat propellers and obviously references Brancusi, but it also brings to mind the less-than-seaworthy crafts that Cubans and Haitians take to sea to attempt to reach the United States. Around the corner, Georgia-based Radcliffe Bailey’s Storm at Sea: a pitch-black sailing ship rising on the swells of a sea of piano keys is apparently being roiled by a statue of an African deity (given his headdress, this is possibly Shango, the Yoruban orisha associated with thunder). Bailey’s piece obviously refers to the African Diaspora and the infamous Middle Passage endured by Africans bound (literally) for the New World. But the sea of piano keys suggests one positive to come out of this transportation: the influence of African rhythms in the music of the Americas—blues, ragtime, jazz, samba, mambo, rhumba, bossa nova—the soul and fusion that age-old traditions brought to the art of the New World.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Go-Go Dancing Platform), 1991; wood, lightbulbs, acrylic paint and Go-Go dancer in silver-lamé bathing suit, sneakers, Walkman; overall dimensions variable; platform; 21 ½ x 72 x 72 inches; installation view, “Lifestyle – From Subculture to High Fashion,” Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, 2006; courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York, and Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland; © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation
Radcliffe Bailey, Storm at Sea, 2007; piano keys, African sculpture, model boat, paper, acrylic, glitter, gold leaf; 212 x 213 inches; courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; © Radcliffe Bailey
The tour de force of NeoHooDoo is Cuban artist José Bedia’s Las Cosas que me Arrastran (The Things That Drag Me Along): a double-headed figure painted on the wall in black silhouette with, on the left, two silkscreened photographs of Native Americans and on the right, two photos of African Americans, which are highlighted on the double-headed figure’s breasts. A toy bridge unites these two heads; from each silkscreened photo, a chain runs to a knot of chains about ten feet from the wall. Something happens in this knot—more than four chains emerge from each entanglement. These chains are variously connected to small metal trucks and airplanes conveying cigars, cigarettes, wooden branches and, ahead of these, two dugout canoes, one laden with Native-American signifiers (a stuffed fox with its leg in a trap, eagle and hawk wings, deer antlers, snake skins and blankets), the other with Yoruban and Santería signifiers (iron elements and implements for the orisha Ogún, and a black hat dedicated to Baron Samedi, a Haitian loa of transformation mounted by a scorpion made of wires, antelope horns and bottles of rum, often used in many purification and dedication rites). An initiate of Palo Monte, a branch of Cuban Santería, Bedia has also studied with Native-American elders throughout the Americas; here he kept faith with both.
The majority of the artists in NeoHooDoo work in very nontraditional media (video and photography among the more conventional). And many of the names are familiar: Pepón Osorio, Adrian Piper, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Janine Antoni, Dario Robleto, David Hammonds, Robert Gober, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Ana Mendieta. Some younger artists of note are Brian Jungen, whose totem poles made from golf bags lent a new definition to the word “totemic,” and Regina José Galindo, whose videos of herself being subjected to various tortures—a Taser attack and high-volume hosing included—combine two undercurrents running through NeoHooDoo: the ritual and the political. For some reason, we contemporary Americans think that we can compartmentalize the spiritual, the political and the artistic. NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith insists that these aspects of our lives cannot be separated—insists that they are inextricably entwined, as the “indigenous,” the “aboriginal” and the “native,” have always known.
John Devine is a freelance critic based in Houston.