Nederlandse versie

Ritual pottery

from Togo and Benin

Vodun (voodoo) is the age-old West African belief in a magic field of force that rules our earthly existence. A world in which ritual pots en figures made out of clay can attract gods, goddesses, ancestors and spirits. Also a world in which Vodungods have to be fed offerings so that the gods will not land people in disaster, and in which figures charged with powers can liberate an individual from a hopeless situation.

In Togo and Benin the pottery which is made for the purpose of Vodun rituals is called Wen Zen, meaning pots with a message. It can be recognized by a variety of decorations such as holes, studs, projections, animal patterns en human figures. A lot of this pottery shows - apart from residues from offerings (alcohol, herbs and food) - also traces of white, red and blue pigment and bits of coloured textile. Some patterns en colours distinctly refer to a specific voodoo-god.

At the very beginning of creation there was Nana Buruku. This androgynous god brought forth the pair Mawu-Lissa to create order in the cosmos. They are simultaneously each others' opposite and complement. Mawu is fertility, motherhood, the night and rest. Lissa is masculine. Together they bring about the rhythm of night and day. This balance holds the essence of life.

When the cosmos had been given structure, the various domains of life were given into care of the innumerable 'children' of Mawu-Lissa, who all have their own 'specialisations', and must guard over creation as 'lower' gods or Vodun. Greatly simplifying, these gods can be grouped into 3 pantheons: the pantheon of the heavens, the pantheon of the earth and the pantheon of thunder. Each pantheon has its own gods and goddesses, who cover, as it were, all aspects and possible experiences of human life.

The most important earth god is Sakpata. He is capable of bringing hunger and disease, but he offers also protection against all evil. Red is a typical Sakpata colour. Bulges refer to Tohusso, the king of the water. White is the colour of Dan, the cosmic snake who binds heaven and earth, and in doing so ensures there is a balance. Typical of Lissa - the male element in the cosmos - are the pots with chameleons.

Characteristic of this pottery is de somewhat rough finish. The animistic decorations and figures contain a certain rawness. One explanation for this primitive appearance is the lack of ovens. In many places in Togo clay is baked in open fires at low temperatures. Despite these technical limitations the pots and figures are of an extraordinary quality.

The information on this subject relies heavily on the catalogue Vodun, Kracht en Aarde (Vodun, Power and Earth), published by the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal (Netherlands) 1996 and the book African Vodun: Art and Psychology and Power by Suzanne Preston Blier, published by the University of Chicago 1995.