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Big Easy Living: Voodoo and art

Editor’s Note: The following series “Via Voodoo Vie: an Exploration of Voodoo in NOLA” is a week-long series curated by Emily O’Connell as a part of the Digital Research Internship Program in partnership with ViaNolaVie. The DRI Program is a Newcomb Institute technology initiative for undergraduate students combining technology skillsets, feminist leadership, and the digital humanities. 

The history and tradition of Louisiana Voodoo has become a unique part of the culture of New Orleans. However, it goes deeper than the Voodoo that has been popularized by the media and tourist attractions. With origins in West Africa and Haiti, brought to Louisiana by enslaved and freed people of color, Voodoo has a rich and often overlooked history, so let’s explore how Voodoo has made its mark on the city and how the city has, in turn, influenced the perception of Voodoo. Part of what makes New Orleans unlike any other city is the cultural vibrance resulting from the blending of different people with different backgrounds. Art and traditions are an important part of preserving and learning from the cultural and spiritual history of the city, as well as embracing new visions for New Orleans.  Originally published on October 3, 2011.

A friend and former editor at The Times-Picayune swears that there was once a story in the newspaper about an alleged meteorological miracle. It seems that intense prayer sessions by the nuns of Our Lady of Prompt Succor Catholic Church as well as a local voodoo priestess had stopped a hurricane hurtling our way.

The latter was quoted at length in the article — surely the first time in history that a major metropolitan newspaper identified a source as a voodoo priestess. Afterward, the story goes, a rival voodoo priest called the paper to complain that HE should have been the one featured in headlines.

A newly arrived copy editor shook her head in disbelief over the fuss, my friend recalls.

“This would never,” she mused, “happen in Cleveland.”

My husband, Stewart, is from Cleveland, and I have enjoyed that city’s wonderfully exotic ethnic neighborhoods, great symphony and the Rock Hall of Fame.

In Cleveland, however, people definitely don’t bury a statue of St. Joseph upside down in the front yard when they are trying to sell their house.

They probably don’t put crossed wooden matches in the center of the backyard before a party, a gris gris against rain.

And certainly the Browns never invited a voodoo priestess to their stadium, as the Saints did on Oct. 31, 1999 (during a game, ironically, against Cleveland), to absolve the Superdome of a curse incurred when it was built atop the old Girod Cemetery.

In my own house, a wonderful folk art cross bristling with beads and feathers hangs on the den wall, its tag identifying it as “Rev. Marrentep’s bayou house voodoo blessing.” I bought it at a voodoo shop on St. Peter Street. Across the room is a colorful striped totem by artist John Geldersma, another form (to me) of native magic.

My mom’s house is protected from evil spirits by a garuda from Indonesia. The hulking blue wooden bird still terrifies my daughters, who used to tiptoe past it when they were small.

I don’t necessarily believe in the efficacy of St. Joseph as real-estate seller (though I may give it a try in this market). Unlike Rick Perry or the priestess mentioned above, I’m not convinced that prayers either bring or stop the rain (though, like them, I do believe strongly in the power of prayer).

But isn’t it great to live in a place where such threads are woven indelibly into the fabric of the city?

In New Orleans, we know that the world is more than merely three-dimensional. We are attuned to things spiritual and enigmatic, to practices odd but settling, to disparate beliefs and a history packed with mystery.

I like the fact that New Orleanians aren’t generally frightened by things we can’t see, but intrigued by them. We are open to possibility.

It’s a fitting environment for a place like the New Orleans Healing Center, where one of the founders, Sally Glassman, is an artist and practicing Vodou priestess, and where all of the participating businesses are dedicated to spiritual, physical, economic and cultural health.

“It’s become very important to me to help people who are ready to heal to do so,” Glassman told NolaVie in an article in April, explaining the purpose behind The Healing Center.

NolaVie will have a pop-up art opening at The Healing Center from 7 to 9 p.m. on Saturday – an event that mirrors the institution’s concentration on spiritual expression and cultural awareness. It will feature art (painter Caskey Miller and photographer Jason Kruppa) and expression (a preview of Dawn Dedaux’s upcoming Prospect 2 installation, inspired by A Confederacy of Dunces).

We will gather as friends and, hopefully, talk about things beyond the usual water-cooler topics.

It’s a good excuse to check out a very cool place where people come together to contemplate the more subjective side of life. As only New Orleanians can do.

Renee Peck, a former feature editor and writer at The Times-Picayune, writes Big Easy Living weekly for NolaVie.


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