Wednesday, January 27, 2010
"He who wears the shoe knows best where it pinches."
With all these images from the devastation in Haiti, Random Mother has been rereading parts of Maya Deren's "Divine Horsemen: the living gods of Haiti" first published in 1953. For those of you unfamiliar with her work, Deren was an amazing film maker, dancer, and author: one of the first American experimental film artists in a time dominated by grandiose Hollywood Studios or boxed-in documentary forms. She created a sort of visual poetry that was a precursor to the video art movement that began in the 1970's. Her friendships with accomplished modern composers gave their music an unusualy equal footing in her films. Her travels to Haiti were initiated by a MaCarthur fellowship to go make a film featuring the dances. She instead made many trips there and returned with a life-changing immersion in the Haitian rituals and religious mythologies, documented in both book and film form.
As an artist, rather than the usual anthropologist studying such cultural phenomena, she experiences subjectively, beginning with the raw visual impact of the dances. In so doing, she sensitively uncovers the context of the Haitian "voodoo" or voudoun, as no one outside the culture had ever done before. In fact, they thought she had once lived among them, gone through an initiation and was returning to do them this favor. "Each one serves in his way" said the priest who accepted her into his realm. The book contains photos of raw pigment drawings, sacred objects, and verbal visual accounts of an amazingly hybrid religious cosmos incorporating numerous African, Caribbean, Native American, Christian and even Aztec threads of influence.
Though Deren had been in one sense defeated in her original quest to make an artistic film with Haitian dance, she emerged victorious in other ways. "Divine Horsemen: the living gods of Haiti" is an extensive and respectful portrait of a cosmology and an example of art so vitally engaged in a village context that it need not be called "art". In fact her work is a fabulous study of CONTEXT period. Con = with , text= stories and this is why i love art so much.
From her forward to the book: "I've come to believe that if history were recorded by the vanquished rather than by the victors, it would illuminate the real, rather than the theoretical, means to power; for it is the defeated who know best which of the opposing tactics were irresistible. The Russian peasant has another way of saying this: He who wears the shoe knows best where it pinches." (Deren was also a Russian immigrant, which further informed her work). She died an untimely death at 44.
"But death itself we recognize not so much by what it is as by the fact that it is not life. As the land and the sea define each other at the shore, so life and death define each other by exclusion", said Deren.
My favorite chapter of the book's interior concerns itself with the drums (naturally). Evidently, the drummers, are mere technicians, replaceable competent carriers of the songs. It is the drum objects themselves who are holy and blessed and fed offerings and passed along carefully through village generations like children and old men. "It is as if the drums were understood as the moral organism, whereas the drummer was a necessary material accessory to their activity.
The drums are able to travel between worlds of living and dead and are a tool of invocation.
The reason I am sharing this with you is: after reading "Divine Horsemen" for twenty minutes a day (Random Mother's limit) and even taking into consideration that the the book was written more than half a century ago, I am struck by the supreme care and honor taken in their relationships between the living and the dead. A normal constant, intertwined presence of "les invisibles". Each one nourishing the other. I want to pass that thought around like a warm washcloth to the head as I contemplate what these people are going through today.
On behalf of the DHI, we hope THAT WHOMEVER IN HAITI NEEDS TO DO THESE RITUALS RIGHT NOW, that you can and that you will and that you must and that it will help you. Even though SHE'S A LITTLE WHITE LADY sitting AT A COMPUTER IN CALIFORNIA this is
ART RANGER's solemn PRAYER of the day."Big gods don't ride small horses" Haitian proverb