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Divine Horsemen: Maya Deren and Haitian Vodou

Maya Deren, 1943
Maya Deren, 1943

By Wieland Rambke

“The pattern, created by the film instrument, transcends the intentions and the movements of individual performers, and for this reason, I have called it Ritual.”

Maya Deren

A very modern longing

There has been a deep fascination with the so-called “Primitive” in modern art since the turn of the century: Paul Gauguin fled Paris for Polynesia to paint landscapes and the natives. Picasso visited an exhibition of African masks and returned so deeply impressed that the visit would later inform the advent of Cubism. But for most of these artists, their admiration for non-Western artefacts and fetishes was in itself a fetish, a romantic longing for some perceived lost innocence. There is an escapist aspect to this glorification of the world outside of modernity, and also something inherently modern about this broken relationship between the modern soul and its environment. A few decades later, Maya Deren would take a very different approach.

In 1946, Maya Deren, theorist, poet, and avant-garde filmmaker, wrote a treatise entitled An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film. In this essay, she related how in the 17th century, a division occurred between science, magic, religion, and philosophy, a division she saw as devastating to the human consciousness. A year later, she would go to Haiti to photograph Haitian dance and Vodou rituals.

In the mirror, film still.
Film still from In the mirror.

“More than anything else, cinema consists of the eye for magic – that which perceives and reveals the marvelous in whatsoever it looks upon.”

Maya Deren

A new form of film

By this time, Maya Deren had made a name for herself as the creator of a series of ground-breaking experimental films. Arguably the most famous is her first one, 1943 Meshes of the Afternoon. Her works are dreamlike and haunting, magical excursions into altered states of consciousness. Film as a medium is inherently bound to time, and she begins using repetition and time itself as raw material: narrative structures are looping back in on themselves. Time and place don’t seem to form an entity anymore. Rather, they become opposites of each other. Reality and fantasy appear as two sides of the same coin. The films elicit a trance-like state. “Nothing so resembled sleep”, as she said about the film.

The films are very innovative in their use of techniques like double-exposure and slow-motion. The purported objective reality of conventional film-making is denied in favour of an inner, subjective truth. The notion of parallel realities, all true in their own right, permeates these films. Deren despised Hollywood and was abhorred with film as entertainment as she saw film first and foremost as an experience, and her works helped establish film as an art form. She opposed the notion of realism, but rejected being called a surrealist. Why did this experimental filmmaker venture out to shoot documentary material in Haiti?

Some themes and topics had already occupied Deren’s mind before she had started making films. After finishing her MA in literature in 1939, she wanted to become a poet. A year later, she toyed with the idea of becoming a dancer and began to work as a secretary to choreographer Katherine Dunham. She published an article entitled Religious Possession in Dancing in the journal Educational Dance. Motion, dance, trance, and ritual already occupy her. When her father, a psychiatrist, dies, she uses some of the inheritance money to acquire a 16mm camera and begins shooting experimental sequences, a practical research in the art of film-making. Deren writes and produces Meshes of the Afternoon and directs it together with her second husband Alexander Hammid.

The road to Haiti

At this time, Deren becomes a central figure in the art scene of New York City, holding wild parties in her apartment, accompanied by ceaseless drumming, herself at the centre of attention, clad in flamboyant dresses. Her house becomes a hub of the emerging avant-garde. Born Eleonora, she calls herself Maya, in honour of the Hindu goddess of dreams and illusion. Referring to her films as “ritualistic”, she begins lecturing on avant-garde film theory, and Haitian vodou.

A painting of the vodou entity Damballa, by Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite
A painting of the vodou entity Damballa, by Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite

In pop culture, “Voodoo” is a zombie death cult of black magic and witchcraft. In actuality, it is a polytheistic belief system with roots in both West African Vodun and Roman Catholicism. Trance, drumming, sacrifice, and possession play a central role in Vodou, a religion where gods and spirits can be invoked directly and join the festivities. They aren’t worshipped as remote entities: ritual drumming and dance call the spirit, which takes possession of one of the dancers, “mounting” them, “riding” them as a horseman would. The individual disappears and simultaneously transcends the physical form. Reality becomes a manifestation of the spiritual world while it also feeds back into the realm of spirits.

Through time, Voudoun spread further North to Lousiana, where it became known as Voodoo, and vestiges of it grew their way deeper into the US: the image of the crossroads, seen as an intersection between the physical and the spiritual world, became prevalent in the early Southern Delta Blues of the 20s and 30s. It is no wonder that the Vodoun belief system touched Maya Deren deeply: concepts of invocation and spirits, still present in this story of music and ritual, had been central to her work and thought, but had never come together in one place as they had in Haiti.

Divine Horsemen

still from Divine Horsemen. Maya Daren
Film still from Divine Horsemen

Unable to edit the footage into a coherent work, Deren started to see the anthropological value of it. She began practising Vodou privately in New York and in 1953, published a book called Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, still considered a prime source on the practice. She died in 1961, never having finished the film. It was her third husband Teiji Ito who finally edited the vast amount of material into a film named after the book. The film Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti uses passages from the book for a voice-over commentary. It describes the gods, spirits, and entities as fact rather than superstition: to Deren, myth was “the facts of the mind made manifest”.

Her approach to the religion of Vodoun stands as an example of an artist who engaged with a foreign culture and its practices in a way that was respectful and never exploitative. While others, Gauguin for example, would remain strangers in a strange land, Maya Deren learned and adopted the ways of another culture, and returned to the US ordained as a Vodou priestess. Instead of fetishizing this foreign culture, she humbly immersed herself in it and learned to integrate it into her own life, beyond any objectification. Divine Horsemen stands not as a fetish for long lost innocence, but as an appreciation of an aspect of a foreign culture that she acknowledged as a healthy addition to life in the here and now.

Voices of Haiti by Maya Deren

Relevant sources to learn more

Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti
Meshes of the Afternoon