This series of photographs, executed in the Republic of Benin, imagines narratives that are inspired by the local animist traditions of the vodun (voodoo) religion. Benin is the birthplace of voodoo, predating many religions by over 10,000 years, and there are groups that keep the tradition alive and strong. Vodun cosmology is based on the idea that spirits govern the natural and human world, and religious practices incorporate ceremonies that communicate with mythical gods. The basic tenet of voodoo stipulates the continuity of all things both visible and invisible in the universe, a belief in the interconnectedness of the living, spirit and natural world. Inspired by the visual codes and symbols of voodoo, I constructed a performative photographic series that reenacted important rituals.
Traveling throughout different parts of Benin, I met with different voodoo priests and participated in voodoo ceremonies in order to gain a better understanding of its practices. I then sourced models from villages and towns in the area, and created my own costumes and props. The result is not a documentary account of voodoo culture, rather it is a fictive portrayal that imagines new types of communities. While they are based on aspects of the local context, these images take on a new life of its own, rooted in fantasy.
My interest in traditional West African religious practices is based on my dual heritage, from a Guinean mother and a Swiss father. Growing up, I was exposed to the animist belief system of my mother’s family in Guinea, which was in stark contrast to my upbringing in Switzerland. These practices served as a vital point of connection to my ancestral roots, and a part of my family that I was fragmentally connected to. At the same time, the practices were exotic, stemming from an ideology that sits in contrast to Western belief systems.
I have always been characterized as the other, whether I am too “African” to be European or too “European” to be African. In this unique positioning, I am interested in the politics of the gaze — who is looking, who is being looked at, and the medium of which this looking occurs. Since the invention of photography, the camera has been a determining instrument for the construction and consolidation of the Western gaze. Colonial photography in the nineteenth century formed a visual imaginary of the dark continent and the exotic other, with a fetishistic interest in different bodies and customs. The inherent philosophy of photography is itself a Western concept, the notion that all can be proved and verified by direct visual sight.
The title of this series, Weke, means “the visible and invisible universe, all things created, living, breathing or not” in the local language of Benin. My images attempt to portray the concept of voodoo that cannot be depicted visually, hence cannot be depicted fully through photography. The camera isolates cultural practices and transforms them into visual forms. Instead, I construct my images with the awareness of the cultural gaze, of the fragmented information that one receives when tradition is alienated from its source. Using graphic elements inspired by paintings, I revisit the symbols of ancestral belief from a contemporary, Westernized perspective. Through the adaptation of myths or fetishes attributable to the Other, it is also the West’s view on these symbols that has been put to the test.