36 Art Documentation, Fall 1995
OBJECTS OF POWER AFRICAN VODUN: ART, PSYCHOLOGY AND POWER / Suzanne Preston Blier. ?Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. ?487p.: ill. ?ISBN 0-226-05858-1; LC 94-2180: $50.00.
The psychological dimensions of African art have been little examined?at best misunderstood?so a serious study that con
centrates on the hidden power of objects and the meaning behind that potency is long overdue. Welcome Suzanne Blier's African Vodun, an investigation of the psychological impact of certain West African objects on human behavior. She explores how spiritual powers are mediated through sculptural objects associated with the religious belief system known as vodun, which is practiced in coastal areas of West Africa, especially in B?nin and Togo. From the old slave coast, as this part of West Africa used to be known, vodun was carried across the Atlantic, where it is still widely prac ticed in Haiti and other African-derived cultures of this hemisphere.
The sculptures of vodun (known as bochio) are unsublime, anti-aesthetic objects, rudely carved, often ladened with additive materials of all sorts?beads, shells, cords, fur, feathers, bits of cloth, leather, or metal. Their power and efficacy derive from this textured, sensate appearance. Blier distinguishes between com
moners' bochio and those associated with royalty of the Fon kings, in terms of form and material, but the underlying psychology re
mains the same.
Blier, a professor of African art history at Harvard University, places these bochio within several theoretical frameworks?his torical, art historical, anthropological, and psychological. Her study revolves around questions of empowerment, status, reversal/in
version of roles, mental process, and coping strategies. Thus it
speaks to larger concerns within other disciplinary arenas beyond that of African art history. She brings to light the psychotherapeutic function of these bochio and the qualities they embody: danger, force, resistance, roughness, secrecy, concealment, and counter
aesthetic. One of the methodological dilemmas that Blier faced was how to approach a subject that is inherently secret and hid den. It is not something people talk about freely?either the ob
jects themselves or their meaning. Yet, her aim is not just to un derstand the meaning of the bochio, but to get at the best method ological approach to understand the process by which objects mediate within society, how they become agents in human nego tiations and interactions, and how they manage to exert power that compels people to act. The bochio may protect the individual from unseen or unspecified dangers or evil, they may be prescrip tive or therapeutic in determining a course of action, or they may be cathartic in resolving some inner or interpersonal conflict. The dynamic between artist and audience, between agent and activa
tion, and between visual medium and critical response are brought into play by the bochio.
African Vodun is addressed to academic audiences; despite its
weighty and complex subject and the unavoidable use of many non-English terms, it is written in lucid prose. The numerous il lustrations (most are, appropriately, in black and white) show the immense variety of forms that these bochio figures and assemblages take. Many of those illustrated are from European and American
museum collections, and others are field photographs o? bochio in situ; all are identified. Earlier writings on the bochio are few and not readily accessible to art libraries, as they are published in eth
nographic periodicals or in relatively obscure travel literature. Af rican Vodun is certainly a must for any art library collecting Afri can art literature as well as for those concerned with the psychol ogy of art.
With our flourishing interest in alternative religious beliefs and practices, the publication o? African Vodun is timely. An exhi bition on The Sacred Arts of Vodu, with accompanying catalogue, will open later this year at the Fowler Museum of Cultural
History, UCLA. In 1993, an extraordinarily well received exhibi tion (and catalogue) was seen in Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of
Africa and the African Americas (Museum for African Art, New York). Clearly, there is growing interest in African religious art in the Diaspora. So begin your library collecting with African Vodun, Face of the Gods, and Sacred Arts of Vodu.
Janet L. Stanley National Museum of African Art
Hidden Mementos SECURE THE SHADOW: DEATH AND PHOTOGRAPHY IN AMERICA/Jay Ruby?Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, May 1995.? 213 p.: ill.?ISBN 0-262-18164-9; LC 94-23118: $39.95.
Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, the re sult of over 10 years of research by anthropologist Jay Ruby, is a
scholarly study on photographs of the deceased. Postmortem pho tography is often considered a 19th-century phenomenon that
waned with the passing of the Victorian era. Ruby's research re vealed that this practice, while infrequently examined, is not un common today in the United States, especially among certain eth nic groups and social classes. His primary concern is the use of
postmortem images by families and friends as a means of coping with the death of loved ones.
This book encompasses postmortem photography and related artifacts, such as, mourning photographs and jewelry, memorial
photography (using portraits taken while the subjects were still alive), memorial and funeral cards, and illustrated tombstones from a large number of institutions, private collections, and cemeteries.
The author covers precursors of postmortem photography, such as, mortuary and posthumous paintings, progressing to 20th-cen
tury developments, including Polaroid snapshots, video memori als, and a proposed "talking" tombstone. The glossary, footnotes,
bibliography, index, and list of figures will satisfy the scholarly reader.
Little is known about contemporary postmortem photographs due to the public sentiment that such images are morbid or offen sive. This stance stems from a societal ignorance of death and the cultural activities surrounding it. According to Ruby, Americans are caught between the cultural expectation of commemorating
significant occasions with the camera and the widespread belief that material reminders of the deceased are unhealthy and pro long bereavement. This is in marked contrast to the last century,
when families displayed and readily discussed postmortem por traits, and photographers openly advertised such services. In many cases, particularly with children, postmortem photographs were the first and last portraits taken of the deceased. This is some times true today, especially with respect to stillborn infants. Such
photographs continue to have therapeutic value for many griev ing families despite the societal pressure to shun such images.
Ruby's approach differs from that of others who have dealt with postmortem photography in that he eschews conventional art historical methods in favor of those taken from anthropology, social history, and ethnography. In his words, he offers "an alter native to the dominant attitude that photography is best under stood as a form of fine art." Ruby examines images within a larger societal, cultural, and historical context to learn about the per sonal and social meanings people have given them. The design of this handsome book is consistent with this approach, as the black and-white reproductions are found throughout the text, rather than
segregated as is often the case in fine art photography books. The author focuses on the commonplace in his choice of photographs; hence the images vary in terms of aesthetic appeal. This is in marked contrast to Stanley Burns's Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Pho
tography in America (New York: Twelvetrees Press, 1990) and Bar bara Norfleet's Looking at Death (Boston: D. R. Godine, 1993). In
This content downloaded from 18.104.22.168 on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 00:06:22 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions