Drawing Down Spirits: Sacred Ground Markings of Vodou in San Francisco

September 22, 2009  |  By
Filed under: Field Notes
Haitian Voudou Mambo Florencia Pierre drawing Veves

Haitian Vodou Mambo Florencia Pierre drawing Veves

A Haitian visual artist named Florencia Pierre visited San Francisco this weekend and blessed the ground of a public park with her drawings. She is a priestess of the sacred practice of vodou. What may look at first glance like an outdoor scene from some rural part of Haiti actually happened in San Francisco’s Mission District Sunday, September 19th at about one O’clock in the Afternoon. That day I had the pleasure of experiencing a casually ingenious, seamlessly organic blend of dance, visual art, narrative and ritual theater in the form of sacred worship. The ritual veve installation was the highlight of the Haitian Dance and Drum Conference, which began Friday, September 18th in Oakland and ended in San Francisco on Sunday with this ceremony. A veve is a ritual ground drawing done in Haitian vodou ceremonies to invite the presence of divine spirits. It is a deeply African ceremony comprised of Yoruba and Kongo practices. The ritual engaged all of my senses at once. I smelled the Florida water and Rum sprayed into the air and tasted fresh fruits from an altar that was virtually glowing with primary colors in mid-day summer light. As I watched Mambo Florencia sprinkle corn meal on the ground to deftly create ideograms that represent the presence of African spirits, I swayed to the sound of drums and felt the presence of the Loas (spirits) that represent Love, War and the Ocean. She was drawing down spirits.

African diasporic artists such as Betye and Alison Saar, Edouard Duval Carrie and Andre Pierre have been known to use the symbols in Veve as part of their artwork. I make no artificial separations between visual artists who exhibit their work in museums and the quotidian visual artist who makes her art in the context of sacred ritual. Acknowledgement of mambo Florencia’s craft as a visual artist within the context of Vodou is important. We need to acknowledge the many contexts within which profound art resides. Witnessing this ritual on Sunday helps me to document another point on the Afriscape where central African symbols and rituals live to affect people with the power of their message.

Mambo Florencia Pierre, her daughter Djenane St. Juste, along with the master drummers Frisner Augustin and Zeke Nealy manifested the beauty of the African presence in the Americas right here in our backyard. I shot over 200 photographs. Here are just few that I hope will convey the bright moments in this ritual.

Vodou Altar with Florida Water, Rum, Fresh Fruits and Candies.

Vodou Altar with Florida Water, Rum, Fresh Fruits and Candies. Photo: Duane Deterville

Legba Atibon

Florencia Pierre begins the Veve. Photo: Duane Deterville

Legba Atibon

Mambo Florencia uses Corn meal to create the drawing. Photo: Deterville

Mambo Florencia uses Corn meal to create the drawing.

Mambo Florencia uses Corn meal to create the drawing. Photo: Deterville

Mother and Daughter Florencia Pierre and Djenane St. Juste.

Mother and Daughter Florencia Pierre and Djenane St. Juste. Photo: Deterville

Mother and Daughter Djenane St. Juste and Florencia Pierre

Mother and Daughter Djenane St. Juste and Florencia Pierre. Photo: Deterville

Djenane

Photo: Deterville

Veve drawings in Cornmeal on pavement.

Veve drawings in Cornmeal on pavement. Photo: Deterville

L to R: Unidentified, Zeke Nealy, Frisner Augustin.

L to R: Unidentified, Zeke Nealy, Frisner Augustin. Photo: Deterville

Ezili, Aizan

Photo: Deterville

10 Comments

  1. kk Says:

    thank you for doing this story!

    in 2nd to last picture, “unidentified” is local percussionist Skooter Fein.

  2. Frank Lostaunau Says:

    It nice not to always read about white folks…thank you.

  3. Jan Says:

    Great pictures! Thanks for sending them.

  4. Rafael Arzuaga Says:

    Thanks for this article and your great graphic report.

  5. Cedar Sigo Says:

    “I make no artificial separations between visual artists who exhibit their work in museums and the quotidian visual artist who makes her art in the context of sacred ritual. Acknowledgement of mambo Florencia’s craft as a visual artist within the context of Vodou is important. We need to acknowledge the many contexts within which profound art resides.”

    I always try to remember this as it pertains to the writing and then reading of poetry.I had said to Suzanne that telling someone you are a poet is like telling someone you are religious. It can either shrink the distance you feel from that person instantly or expand it.

  6. manfred Says:

    supper fotos

  7. Frank Lostaunau Says:

    Did Florencia survive the earthquake? I hope so.

  8. Arteyhviah Badar Says:

    No one can write a ‘Vodou Symbol as powerful as Florence Pierre! I was overwhelmed by her Vodou Symbol in Blue. I have wondered for a long-time as to what was the ladys name in the symbol that I was so attracted to? Although I have not had the pleasure to meet Forence Pierre, MAMBO you have the ultimate ingredient in your symbols>THE POWER OF THE DIVINE SPIRIT! PLEASE KEEP UP THE EXCELLENT SPIRITUAL WORKS!! I THANK YOU…

  9. T. L. Miller Says:

    Is there an operating peristyle or house for Haitian Vodou in the bay or nor cal? I am searching for one…

  10. zito Says:

    I’ve been looking for a vodou society in the bay area for some time. If you know of one?

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