Stanford exhibit reveals a photographer's 'intense, passionate' encounter with Vodoun

A Belgian photographer discovers a mysterious West African religion with an uncertain reputation.

Cantor Arts Center 'Mamissi Togbesson Toffodji' and 'Koffi'

'Mamissi Togbesson Toffodji' and 'Koffi'

In 2004, Belgian photographer Jean-Dominique Burton made several trips to the West African nation of Burkina Faso, a former French colony whose name means "the land of upright people."

His stately photographs portrayed the nation's Naabas – its traditional chiefs, kings and even the emperor. The 58-year-old photographer, who had roamed the roads of Asia for three decades, then moved on to the neighboring Republic of Benin.

Stanford's Cantor Arts Center is now spotlighting his new exhibition, Vodoun/Vodounon: Portraits of Initiates, in an exhibition that continues through March 20, 2011.

The Vodounons from Benin knew Burton's reputation and wanted him to make these striking photographs, done in the manner of traditional European portrait photography, knowing these images would travel around the world and speak for them.

This exhibition features 25 compelling diptychs, pairing black-and-white portraits with color photographs to portray Vodoun practitioners and their shrines. The exhibition is accompanied by a documentary video; Samuel Lampaert's VOODOO, the Origins, features interviews with the Vodoun initiates who collaborated with Burton.

The traditional Fon religion, now called variously Vodou, Vodun, Vaudou, or Vaudoux, is practiced throughout West Africa and the African Diaspora. It has its origins in Benin – formerly Dahomey – "a deeply engaging country with a heavily charged history," Burton wrote for the Zinsou Foundation, a Benin organization devoted to African art.

"I discovered a fascinating world far removed from the shady reputation peddled for centuries by the slave traders' failure to understand the strange rituals practiced by their victims," Burton wrote. "I entered a world of respect and legends, frequently symbolized by unbelievably abstract shrines, a subtle mix of sculpture, painting and installations worthy of the most prestigious contemporary art galleries.

"These were intense, passionate encounters. The confidence with which the Vodounons let me take their portraits, and photograph the most venerated Vodoun hidden in their temples, convents and sacred forests, honored me and far exceeded my expectations."

Modern-day Vodou is the focus of the programs offered in conjunction with the exhibition. The Cantor Arts Center will offer a series of films at 6 p.m. on Nov. 4, 11, and 18; a dance, music, and storytelling performance at 6 p.m. on Dec. 2; and a lecture entitled "Gods Without Green Cards," by Donald Cosentino at 6 p.m. on Jan. 13. Admission to the museum, the exhibition and the programs is free.

The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday to 8 p.m. For museum information, call (650) 723-4177.