Gullah & Voodoo: Art with Roots in West African Religion in the American South
Little research has been done on pieces of art in the South that stems from West African religions into practices such as Voodoo and Gullah Geechee. In order to develop a well-rounded overall perspective of the art created in the 19th century in America, further research needs to be done on items that stem from West African religions and the Caribbean, and how they were incorporated into American lifestyles. Both voodoo and Gullah practices developed in the American South as slaves were brought into the major port cities. The slaves, who would be brought from different tribes in Africa, most likely would not have all spoken the same language; however they found ways to combine some of their religious practices into a language that was commonly understood. This practice of religion that spanned the language barrier became known as Voodoo in Louisiana, and Gullah Geechee in the Sea Islands.
Voodoo, or Vodun, is a religious practice that originated in Africa. Historians have connected those practices to Haiti, and other islands in the Caribbean, where enslaved persons from Africa were forbidden from practicing Voodoo. Haiti served as a melting pot of French Catholicism and African Voodoo, and before long the enslaved people adapted their Vodun deities to go along with Catholic figures. When the diaspora of the practice continued to New Orleans, Voodoo became even more intertwined with Catholicism and French roots, as New Orleans was a predominantly French Catholic city. In his book Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge, Jerry Gershenhorn discusses the belief among Haitian Vodun practicioners that when Catholic priests [i]
The deities of Voodoo in America took on the attributes of Catholic Saints in order to mask the practice from slave owners. For instance one of these deities, Legba is one of the main loa, or deity in Vodun, he serves as a messenger between the earthly world and the spirit world. He is the Vodun equivalent to Saint Peter, the Catholic Saint who is said to hold the keys to Heaven. Many African tribes would often use masks that had been passed down through families to connect with their ancestors and invoke their protection. [ii] While there are records of masks existing in collections in museums and plantation homes in New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana, there are few scholarly accounts of their existence. [iii] Practitioners of Voodoo believe in the power of Talismans, gris-gris, and charms; however, contrary to common knowledge of voodoo, most of them view the use of voodoo to harm other people as sacrilege. [iv]
In the voodoo culture of New Orleans, portraits of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, are extremely common. Other paintings featured in the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum depict different rituals that were part of the practice. The paintings done by residents of New Orleans portray a local opinion of the practice. Charles Gandolfo, a Louisiana Native, founded the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum and painted the portraits found inside, therefore adding paintings with a local perspective into the museum’s collection. Many carvings of heads in the round have been found from tribes in Nigeria, some of which can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection as examples of head sculpture found in Africa.[v]
Another important New Orleans voodoo influenced art form is the jazz music genre. In the early 19th century, slaves and free persons of color would meet at Congo Square on Sundays they would have off of work, in order to dance and make music with sticks, gourd, and wooden blocks to keep the beat.[vi] In his article “The Invention of a Memory: Congo Square and African Music in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans,” Ted Widmer references a quote from Benjamin Latrobe, an eighteenth century American architect who saw firsthand the recreational activity that took place in Congo Square. Latrobe was very startled by the music and dancing, but at the same time he was also intrigued. The people would gather in the square to play their music and dance the Congo, chanting words from the language of Voodoo. As New Orleans became more of a tourist-aimed city, the Square received further attention due to its voodoo roots. People, who gathered there in the late nineteenth century, began to play music and dance once again, and journalists who witnessed it named that music jazz. [vii]
This amalgamation of West African religions also occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, the site of a major slave trade port, and other smaller ports in the area such as Savannah Georgia. The coastal cities in the region called the “sea islands,” specifically Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia, are rich in Gullah traditions that are evident in their histories and lifestyle. Signs of the belief in Gullah spirits, or “haints” appear throughout the city in the form of “haint blue” ceilings on the piazzas.[viii] Rituals and superstitions from West Africa and Gullah have influenced Charleston architecture and design choices, specifically in the piazzas. In Charleston, many of the piazzas are painted to ward off evil spirits by tricking them into thinking that the paint is a river, which the evil spirits would have been unable to cross.
Many of the books I have found on the practice of Voodoo in New Orleans reference masks as having an important role in rituals, however, I have not found any museums or galleries with masks in their collection, other than the Voodoo Museum in New Orleans, which does not have photographs of their collection available online. There are also private collections such as the Grand Houmas House Plantation in Darrow, Louisiana that is said to have a Vodun mask on display, but there is no documentation that verifies that photograph.
As Maurie McInnis discusses in her article Little of Artistic Merit? The Problem and Promise of Southern Art History, Southern Art and Caribbean art are two genres that are frequently overlooked by researchers studying American art. [ix] Masks and other items used in Voodoo/Gullah practice, which are both often associated with Caribbean genres, are often viewed as taboo or sacrilegious Further study of the masks and other voodoo objects as art, or as miniature sculptures would help to expand the scope of American art to include all the art made by people in America, instead of only the popular genres. [x]
While art out of Voodoo culture has not been the focus of many art historical literatures, it has been grossly commercialized. Most recently, the Disney movie Princess and the Frog features the Vodun deity Mama Odie, the fairy godmother-like character that helps to save the main characters of the movie. Going along with tradition Voodoo depictions of Mama Odie, she wears a white dress, with large gold earrings and a pet snake that sits upon her shoulders. Other modifications of Vodun deities are the Shadow man, who is the villain in the Disney movie, and the incorporation of talismans into the resolving scene of the movie.[xi]
In conclusion, the practice of Voodoo and Gullah have deeply planted roots in the American South, however the lack of research dedicated to the subject shows a narrow-scope of interest in the category of American art. Further studied with documented photographs could lead to intriguing analysis of how the practices developed as they were brought into the Americas and the Caribbean. Studies on the practice of Voodoo would require care attention to finding the underground practices of Voodoo, not the commercialized stereotypical objects that are made and advertised to make a profit. Another avenue for future study could lead into a comparison of Voodoo and Gullah based on their geographic origins in order to see how they developed and what parallels that maintained.
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Dorsey, Lilith. Voodoo and Afro Caribbean Paganism. New York: Citadel, 2005.
Johnson, Jerah. “New Orleans’s Congo Square: An Urban Setting for Early Afro-American Culture Formation.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association32 (): 117-157.
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Ravitz, Jessica. “Unveiling New Orleans voodoo.” THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE, November 24, 2008.
Staton, John. “Art exhibit’s ‘Haint Blue’ combines history, spirituality and fun.” Wilmington Star-News, , sec. Art, January 27, 2010.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Description: Masquerade Element: Ram Head.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Vision From October 8, 2013.
Thompson, Krista. “A Sidelong Glance: The Practice of African Diaspora Art History in the United States.” artjournal. no. 3 (2011): 7-31.
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Pinksy, Mark. “What Walt Wrought.” Wall Street Journal, January 7, 2010.
Ward, Martha. Voodoo queen the spirited lives of Marie Laveau. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
Widmur, Ted. “The Invention of a Memory: Congo Square and African Music in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans.” Revue française d’études américaines, pp. 69-78 98 (): 69-78.
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[ii] William Pollitzer, The Gullah People and their African Heritage, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005)
[iii] Karen McCarthy Brown, Tracing the Spirit: Ethnographic Essays on Haitian Art. (Seattle: Univ of Washington, 1996.)
[iv] Pollitzer, The Gullah People and their African Heritage,
[v]Karen McCarthy Brown, Tracing the Spirit.
[vi]Jerah Johnson,.”New Orleans’s Congo Square: An Urban Setting for Early Afro-American Culture Formation.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association (1991): 117-157.
[vii]Ted Widmur,. “The Invention of a Memory: Congo Square and African Music in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans.” Revue française d’études américaines, pp. 69-78.
[viii] John Staton, “Art exhibit’s ‘Haint Blue’ combines history, spirituality and fun.” Wilmington Star-News, , sec. Art, January 27, 2010.
[ix] Maurie McInnis, “Little of Artistic Merit? The Problem and Promise of Southern Art History,” American Art, 19, no. 2 (2005): 11-18,
[x] McInnis, “Little of Artistic Merit?”11.
[xi]Pinksy, Mark. “What Walt Wrought.” Wall Street Journal, January 7, 2010.