Painting Vodou and Bois Caïman

Deeps > Representing Bois Caïman > Painting Mystery and Memory: Bois Caïman in Visual Art > Painting Vodou and Bois Caïman

by Courtney Young

It’s not possible to talk about Bois Caïman without talking about vodou as they are interrelated.  For the purposes of Painting Mystery and Memory: Bois Caïman in Visual Art, I will offer something of an outline of rada and petro elements in vodou given their relation to the ceremony. Note that there is a great deal of information out there about vodou and I encourage you to explore the topic including on our own “Religion” and Bois Caïman page, reading Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, or watching the film with its namesake.

Haitian vodou gods (called lwas) can, for the most part, be divided into two categories – Rada and Petro (sometimes spelled Petwo).  Andrew Apter puts it simply, “Rada rituals involve cool drum rhythms, choreographies, and spiritual demeanors appropriate to revered authority.” Conversely, he notes, Petro gods “are hot and transgressive, riding their mounts (possessed devotees) during ritual performances with the explosive fury and self-abandonment of faster tempos and accentuated off-beats…Indeed, the power of the Petwo deity innovates and transforms, requiring the blood of the four-legged sacrifice to mobilize personal and collective agency.[1]

 From this description we can begin to see the elements discussed in the Bois Caïman paintings (Boukman the houngan, Fatiman the mambo, the fire, and the sacrifice of the black pig) in a whole new light. These are not random elements, they represent intentional practice of and faith in vodou.  Again Apter,

the Petwo line corresponds to the revisionary and revolutionary powers of deep knowledge through its invocations of revolutionary leaders, such as Boukman and Makandal, and the incendiary ceremony at Bois Caiman; its association with fire, fission, transgression, and subversion; and, as a science of transformation,by its capacity to change the world. Riding their “horses” in violent possessions, the Petwo deities demand freedom from social, political, even bodily boundaries, opposing the authoritative order as upheld by Rada.”[2]

Ultimately, we can come to understand that the ceremony at Bois Caïman was not simply a gathering to discuss details for the imminent revolt; the ceremony took place to call to Petro gods, to channel them through Boukman and Fatiman, to ask for their help in leading the enslaved people of Saint Domingue in a revolution where they would fight for, and ultimately win, their freedom.

Keep reading for more information on Haitian Art, “religion”, music, and sources related to Bois Caïman.


Want to cite this page?  Here ya go! Just cut and paste:  Young, Courtney. “Painting Vodou and Bois Caïman.” The Black Atlantic. Duke University.

[1] Apter, Andrew. “On African Origins: Creolization and Connaissance in Haitian Vodou”. American Ethnologist, Vol. 29, No. 2 (May, 2002), pp. 238-239.

[2] Apter, Andrew. “On African Origins: Creolization and Connaissance in Haitian Vodou”. American Ethnologist, Vol. 29, No. 2 (May, 2002), pp. 246-247

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