African Art

‘ReVoduation’: The immaterial network(s) of material things

Niklas Wolf writes on the West African religious practices of ‘Vodun’, considering its potential ritualistic developments through new technologies and social media.

Pictorial objects from the religious practice of ‘Vodun’ (a term originated in West Africa, globalised and hybridised following the Black Atlantic routes, which refers to both religion itself and its protagonists in the form of spirits and powerful things) are characterised by formal-aesthetic, content-related and material syntheses as well as accumulations.[1] As part of a syncretistic religion, they are open to ‘foreign’ images, forms, techniques and contents that they encounter in intercultural inner-African and global contact zones.[2] Continuously updated through performative treatment, they are temporary or permanently displayed in shrines. Like a museums presentation, they have therefore a share in material and immaterial cultural heritage and thus in the culture of memory of society itself.

What happens to the images of Vodun through the translation of new media into new, again performative images of digital spaces? What does the perpetuation of ephemeral objects and moments through the camera – itself a ‘mimetic machine’ – do?[3] Do the possibilities of global exchange and the mobilisation of artefacts via social media such as YouTube, WhatsApp and Instagram change the power of identity-forming images? What are the characteristics of the ‘prosaics of digital media’[4] and their technical ‘virtuosity’ in the reformulation and dissemination of Vodun images?[5] Do records of ephemeral ritual practices create ‘ritual genealogies‘, as Martin Zillinger postulated for images and media of North African Sufism?[6]

‘By appearing in different places, material objects connect the places of their presence through their materiality.’[7]

The networking behaviour of these pictorial objects does not obscure the questions immanent to them about their provenance, but rather reinforces them, whether in West African shrines, European museums or the virtual space of the Internet. The material and formal aspects of these pictures are often critically reflected upon, but also opened up to new attributions by the respective image authors. The necessary performative strategies of image genesis and display are closely related to bodily practices in ritual – things appear as carriers of traces and, just like human bodies acting in rituals, can have a performative effect. Both are places of sedimentation of history, making use of elaborate techniques of inscription and embodiment.[8] Hence, commemorative pictorial objects function in virtual space as ‘ritual inventory’ and as archives that bring history to life at the same time.[9]

In the Edo language of Nigeria, ‘to remember’ literally means ‘to cast in bronze’, the bronze plates of the Kingdom of Benin are material witnesses of the country’s history. In contrast to the performative images of West African Vodun, the past is unchangeably fixed in these objects; especially in the spatial concepts of western museumisation, which are foreign to them, they can only be material for historical studies that work retrospectively.[10] In contrast, the image objects of West African Vodun, which are constantly updated in their use, were described in the past as ‘multifunctional objects’, ‘performative metaphors’ or ‘ritual enactments’.[11]

Between techniques of oral history and object-based, quasi-museal historiography, performative art can be understood as oral literature of fluid archives.[12] The interweaving of concepts of the ephemeral (orality, performance) and the permanent (literature, text) – especially when considering imagological questions between cultures – could be a first approach to solving problems inherent in these images.[13] This simultaneously tangible and metaphysical potential raises further questions about the organisation of images, their interconnectedness and corporality in global and virtual networks, like the ones mentioned above.

The image production of the African Magick Temple in Accra is an example of the constant change of Vodun and consequently a reaction to contemporary local and global issues. Christopher Voncujovi is the founder and spiritual leader, the trademark of his philosophy is the determined internationality of the priest.

Screenshot from Afrikan Magick Temple., Accessed 28.3.2020.

Under the catchphrase ‘ReVoduation’, an imagological revaluation of traditional pictorial practices and their transformation into virtual spaces takes place. Images and their practices thus become available worldwide, specifically addressing an African diaspora.

Photographs of performative actions and interactions document and systematise the order of objects, create encyclopedic-accumulative archives of material culture, depict people, their things, spirits, plants and animals, and thus bring together concepts of material and immaterial cultural heritage. Like the shrine itself, virtual images can be read as places of knowledge and performative texts at the same time, showing an inventory of networks and actors on the homepage of Temple. In a specific aesthetic, reminiscent of photographs in international fashion magazines and established strategies of the advertising and pictorial medium Instagram, the imagery of the African Magick Temple globalises this knowledge in the media translation into Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Images and films show just that – a kind of ritual inventory of the material culture and performance of West African Vodun of the present.

Screenshot from Afrikan Magick Temple., Accessed 28.3.2020.

Performances transported to virtual spaces confirm the status of the images by constantly updating them through formal-aesthetic and content related practices of actualisation. Formally that would happen through material accumulation and the restructuring and treatment of surfaces and the arrangement of those objects. Apart from this, a kind of semiotic and medial flexibility allows religious practices and the objects associated with them to react to new social contexts, social challenges and even new spaces and techniques. The ‘ReVoduation’ of the African Magick Temple has an educational mission; the homepage of the shrine offers pictorial insights into practices that are often difficult to access: Adepts are shown exercising religious practice, apparently the audience is international. They reproduce dynamic processes of medial and formal translation and (re)appropriation and typical visual vocabulary of Vodun at the same time, which has found its way into the museum display of the global West and images of the Diaspora: they thus show their possibility of ‘presentificatio’, an actual realisation of the otherwise intangible in objects of material culture, which goes far beyond concepts of presentation (masquerade), representation (objects) and metaphor (content).[14]

In such virtual space, container-like images, clearly inscribed properties of materiality, aesthetics and spirituality mutually reinforce and confirm each other. The connection of things with ‘practiced modes of action’ or the ‘ambiguity’ of these and the ‘changeability of object-related meanings and modes of use’[15] – their ‘cognitive stickiness’ as Alfred Gell would perhaps put it – makes them of interest for questions related to material culture and the archive at the same time.[16]

Martin Zillinger operates with an intriguing pair of terms in his investigation: ‘downscaling’ examines the translation of complex contents into ritually or medially simplified images, ‘upscaling’ describes the global distribution of such images in, for example, digital networks.[17] By digitising aspects of material culture and the archive through the application of these medial techniques, the images of the African Magick Temple create a dedicated ‘ritual genealogy’ for a specific audience, especially the diaspora, and form the basis of a tradition-based, contemporary African identity.

[1] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993).

[2] ‘Social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today.’ Mary Louise Pratt, ‘Arts of the Contact Zone,’ in Ways of Reading, ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999), 1-7.

[3] Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular Study of the Senses (New York: Routledge, 1993) 16.

[4] E. Gabriella Coleman, ‘Ethnographic Approaches to Digital Media,’ Annual Review of Anthropology 39 (2010): 495 (487-505).

[5]  Alfred Gell, Art and Agency. An anthropological Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), VIII.

[6] Martin Zillinger, ‘Media and the scaling of ritual spaces in Morocco,’ Social compass 61, no. 19 (2014): 44 (39-47).

[7] Hans Peter Hahn and Friedemann Neumann, Dinge als Herausforderung. Kontexte, Umgangsweisen und Umwertungen von Objekten (Bielefeld: transcript-Verlag 2018), 18.

[8] ‘(…) the past is, as it were, sedimented in the body.’ Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 72.

[9] Barbara Plankensteiner, Benin. Könige und Rituale. Höfische Kunst aus Nigeria (Gent: Snoeck Publ. 2007), 21.

[10] They are objective in the true sense of the word and part of historical construction. Connerton, How Societies Remember, 13.

[11] See: Tobias Wendl, ‘Slavery, Spirit Possession & Ritual Consciousness. The Tchamba Kult among the Mina of Togo,’ in Spirit Possession. Modernity & Power in Africa, ed. Heike Behrend and Ute Luig (Oxford: James Currey, 1999), 113 (111-124). Judy Rosenthal, Possession, Ecstasy and Law in Ewe Voodoo (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 98. Paul Stoller, ‘Embodying Colonial Memories,’ Americanhropologist, New Series 96, no. 3 (1994): 639 (634-648).

[12] Fritz Kramer, Kunst im Ritual. Ethnographische Erkundungen zur Ästhetik (Berlin: Reimer, 2014), 31.

[13] An imagological approach would focus on the cross-national contexts of pictures and the pictorial manifestation of subjective perception of cultural differences in the sense of intercultural hermeneutics, reflecting upon constructions of the self and the other in such pictures.

[14] Jean-Pierre Vernant and Froma I. Zeitlin, Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 151.

[15] Hahn and Neumann, Dinge als Herausforderung, 11.

[16] Gell, Art and Agency, 86.

[17] Zillinger, ‘Media and the scaling of ritual spaces in Morocco,’ 39-47.

Further Readings:

  • Gell, Alfred. Art and Agency. An anthropological Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Taussig, Michael. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular Study of the Senses. New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Zillinger, Martin. ‘Media and the scaling of ritual spaces in Morocco.’ Social Compass 61, no. 19 (2014): 39-47.

Niklas Wolf, M.A. is a researcher and lecturer at the Department of Art History of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. As a research associate he is assigned to the professorship for the values of cultural heritage und provenance research. His research interests focus on the art history of Africa (especially tradition-based art), photography, material culture, visual studies, art history and cultural anthropology, interculturality and aesthetics. Currently he is working on his doctoral thesis (Voodoo and the state of inter. The (re)production of images and media in the context of West African Vodun between identity and alterity – working title), dealing with superordinate discourses of ownership and provenience, as well as the performative effects of specific, multifunctional objects in the construction of identity and alterity.

Latest exhibition (curated with Kerstin Pinther): Photobook Africa. Tracing Stories and Imagery, Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte München, 20.2 – 27.3.2020