Artist Jean-Robert Jacques’ lwa, is Bossou Trois Cornes, a spirit which takes the form of a three-horned bull. His story begins there because, as he admits with a laugh, “Everything I have tried that does not start with vodou doesn’t work.”
Why the sense of humor about it? His parents are Protestants, and he was not raised in vodou. In fact, his mother still gives him trouble about the imagery of his work – which is unusual even in vodou-rich Haiti because it goes beyond the familiar iconography of lwas and spirits.
“I don’t know where the work comes from. All I can say is that when I am sleeping, when I am awake, I have visions of new ways to present the spirits.” His first vision came in 1995, when a visitor in his dreams told him to create a work with three snakes. Shortly after he followed the advice, a foreign visitor came to Robert’s workshop and bought 100 pieces of his artwork. “After that, because snakes are his symbol, Dambala became part of my spiritual patrimony.”
Of the many pieces Jacques offers for sale during our visit, a crescent-moon shaped nest of baby snakes catches the eye. “Every baby Dambala is destined for a different family. It’s hard for you to understand, but we think of the lwas as “nations,” not as one spirit but a vast family of spirits each of which belongs to a family, a bloodline. They are one spirit, but with many, many facets of identity.”
Since he was not raised in vodou, his spirits come from his grandparents, and from their connection back to his African ancestors. His are Rada spirits grouped in a family he calls “Escort,” whose members include three of the most important lwa: Bossou, Dambala and Erzulie.
Jacques calls many of his pieces transformations because they show vodou lwas in the process of engaging with humans. An image of Dambala, for example, sprouts human heads connected to it by twisting filaments of metal: these are the people who follow him, who are visited by him. The unique “possession” experienced by vodou adherents is captured in some form in Jacques’s work: individuals are connected to their lwa, but separate. They take energy and influence from the lwa, but remain themselves, too.
Jacques describes his own relation to his lwa first by citing the God of Catholicism and then by citing the lwa – which acknowledges the hierarchy of vodou: God is over all, but the lwa interact with men and women. “By the power of almighty God and of Bossou Trois Cornes, who walks with me, I live and do my work. Since the lwa is powerful, when he is with you, life is good,” he explains. With a twinkle in his eye, he adds, “If he gives you a number to play, you better play it.”
For more information on the work of Jean-Robert Jacques, see www.mennouhaiti.com