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There’s plenty in the news about the plight of Haiti at the moment. But for our World in London series, I wanted to highlight something other than the earthquake and cholera outbreaks that we associate with Haiti today. Haiti is an historic country, with a colourful past and a fascinating blend of cultures. In the Horniman Museum, you can find a Haitian Vodou Altar that has been created with guidance from Haitian priests, a piece of Haiti right here in South East London.
The first thing that strikes me about the Vodou Altar is just how glitzy it is. After examining Mestizo’s Day of the Dead altar last week, I’m getting used to seeing different worshipping platforms, but I wasn’t prepared for this. Every piece of the altar seems to shimmer and shine with gaudy sequins and colourful material. The Haitian spirits must really enjoy their bling.
There are skulls with dollar bills in their eye sockets, dolls’ heads in bottles, brightly coloured scarves, tinsel, bottles of alcohol, and a very strange-looking goblin at the base, its head fixed to a cross with a single eye embedded into its tongue. Alongside the more weird and wonderful items, you can also see more everyday things, like a simple straw hat, and what looks like a tube of mascara.
I learn that this altar is dedicated to spirits including:
- La Sirene, the goddess of the sea (linked to the sirens of Greek mythology). The sequin flags symbolise her presence
- Baron Samdi, the spirit chief of the graveyard, is represented by the coffin shaped bottles, the skulls and the snake stick
- Papa Zaka is associated with farming. His dedicated objects include the straw hat, clothing and bag, which on first glance look quite incongruous against the other more decorated items
- Ezulie Danton, the goddess of beauty and love, is represented by those weird-looking dolls heads in bottles
Alongside these items, you can see the mixing of Catholic and traditional African beliefs that make Haiti unique: pictures of Christian saints like St Michael, with wings and a sword are a reminder of the clash of cultures in the 16th century when Europeans brought African slaves to Haiti. The Horniman’s fantastic website explains that this process of mixing continues today; altars in Haiti include images from American popular culture such as Darth Vader and Fred Flintstone.
Check out the Haitian Vodou Altar in the African Worlds gallery at the Horniman Museum. Entrance to the Horniman is free, and the museum is open every day between 10.30am and 5.30pm. And if you know of any other opportunities to explore Haitian culture in London, add them to the comments below.