The first striking thing in "Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti," the haunting, otherworldly new temporary exhibition at the Field Museum, was the smell.
It's earthy, dusky, not unpleasant, and it offered an immediate sense of something real finding its way into the often overly pristine environment of a big museum.
That scent might be the wood from the low-slung display platforms; it might be the objects on the platforms, a stunning collection of 300 folk artifacts related to the Haitian religious and cultural practice misunderstood here as "Voodoo."
You get actual aroma in the show's two large galleries because these carvings and shaped stones and wooden constructions, unlike the objects in almost all museum displays everywhere, aren't covered up with little Lucite cases like half-eaten cakes fighting to stay fresh.
They're right in the open air among the museumgoers. Removing a layer of separation seems a simple enough thing, but it's a game changer, well worth the price a museum might pay in asking its guards to be extra vigilant about grabby hands.
These artifacts already address the most visceral topics: love, life, sex, death, bondage, violence, deities. And they do so in vivid red and deep black, spangled with sequins and mirrors. But having them as presences in the room, mounted, most often, at eye level or just below, makes them that much more vital.
"They are not museum pieces," said Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique, an anthropologist at the State University of Haiti and an organizer of the exhibition, who was on hand for a preview Tuesday. "They are objects of inspiration, and they are meant to be visited freely."
The pieces are also in the open because central tenets of Vodou (pronounced, roughly, "vah-due") include the easy flow between life and death and the manner in which "lwa," spirit manifestations that help Vodouists commune with their god, or Great Master, circulate among the living. The lwa depicted here are many; they include bull-headed fighters, fiercely protective grandmothers and benevolent old men, and they are rendered in the materials available to a poor, isolated people.
The artifacts depict, Beauvoir-Dominique said, "our anguishes, our passions, our furies, our sadnesses."
Vodou, the show takes pains to point out, is not Louisiana voodoo, a derivative but distinct practice in the United States. It is not the Hollywood voodoo stereotype of zombies, devils or, especially, of effigy dolls stuck with pins.
"This exhibition invites you to look beyond the stereotypes," said Field President Richard Lariviere.
Instead, Vodou is the spiritual and cultural expression of a people long suppressed, with a history of amalgamating many cultures while holding off others.
On the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, the area that would become Haiti merged a native population and, after Christopher Columbus landed on the island, people brought in bondage from West Africa to work, mostly, sugar-cane plantations.
The revolt ending in 1804 made the newly christened Haiti (formerly Saint-Domingue) the first black nation in the Western Hemisphere, ultimately sharing the island with the modern-day Dominican Republic. But — and this is an all-too-brief gloss on a complex history — other nations refused to trade with Haiti until it agreed to pay France reparations for the wealth the European nation lost in slaves and land.
As countries including the U.S. took varying degrees of interest in and control over Haiti, the nation struggled to pay off its debt and the people fought attempts to eliminate Vodou in favor of Christianity.
The debt was finally paid in the 1940s. As for religion, Haitians will tell you that the country is "80 percent Catholic, 20 percent Protestant and 110 percent Vodou," Beauvoir-Dominique said.
A 1941 anti-superstition campaign forced Haitians to take a pledge, "I promise to renounce Vodou and become Catholic," the exhibition says. And so people said those words, but Vodou soon had an lwa whose name was Zomangay ("I promise"). The pledge had been co-opted into the allegedly renounced religion.
"Vodou" is made up mostly of pieces collected by Marianne Lehmann, a now-retired Swiss consulate worker in Haiti who married a Haitian man, settled there and became a trusted repository for such works. From the 3,000-piece collection of hers, now held by the Foundation for the Preservation, Enhancement and Production of Haitian Cultural Works, 300 were selected for the exhibition.
Its earnings are slated for the founding of a cultural museum in Haiti, said Beauvoir-Dominique, who works with the foundation. It first toured Europe: two cities each in Sweden and Germany and a stop in Amsterdam.
It was reworked when it debuted in North America, at the Canadian Museum of History near Ottawa, listed as the show's co-organizer. Its first American stop is at the Field, in a city founded by Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a Haitian.
The story of Haiti, though, is told only briefly, without much explicit elaboration on the ways in which Vodou beliefs helped the Haitians overthrow slave masters and other outsiders, even as those same beliefs, misunderstood, allowed the outsiders to paint Haitians as pagans and devil-worshippers. Instead, the focus is fixed most firmly, as the exhibition title suggests, on the intricate practices and philosophies of Vodouists.
This show is a visual stunner. Including sequined flags, crude sculptures, sacred drums, coiled, cloth snakes and bejeweled life-size cloth figures, these objects will resonate deeply with lovers of American folk art.
Walk into the big second room, and the feeling, to the layperson, is of entering a Caribbean bazaar, although what's on offer is not fruit or crafts but a take on a culture. On a much grander scale, it is cluttered like the household "pe," or altar, reproduced at one end of the room, or like the Vodou temple at the opposite, one of the few aspects of the show that is behind a barrier.
Video throughout offers Haitians explaining Vodou practices, including animal sacrifice; the practitioner suggests the animals practically offer themselves up. The video screens are mounted on the edges of the exhibition platforms in structures that resemble, perhaps unintentionally, leaning tombstones.
Larger video screens offer footage of assorted Vodou rites shot on the island or in expatriate communities (Chicago, by the way, has a Haitian community of about 30,000, the show says). Some nudity is depicted, but it doesn't seem nearly as likely to bother sensitive viewers as the footage of staggering people said to be possessed by spirits.
Those especially moved by "Vodou" can leave the museum with Haitian artifacts of their own. The gift shop at the exit is stocked like a more focused version of a Ten Thousand Villages store. And "Vodou" features some of the better exhibition T-shirts I've seen; instead of giving name and dates, like an advertisement, they're more subtle, decorated only with a version of a "veve," a sacred drawing that precedes a Vodou ceremony.
But before that, the exhibition proper concludes with a sort of hall of picture-window-sized mirrors decorated with Vodou symbology and designed to make museumgoers think about their own worldview and their own religion.
An interactive Venn-diagram table amid the mirrors lets visitors chart the areas in which their beliefs and Vodou might intersect. Clergy, afterlife, divinities, spirits, prayer, special drinks, possession and sacrifice are among the categories up for consideration, and there is, of course, more common ground than not.
"We want you to look at what that strange object looking at you says to your inner self," said Beauvoir-Dominique.
'Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti'
When: Saturday through April 26
Where: Field Museum of Natural History, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive
Tickets: Included with Discovery and All-Access passes ($25-$31) at 312-922-9410 or fieldmuseum.org