Thursday, October 20, 2011

Voodoo panels bring Wellcome Library to 750,000

It seems appropriate that in the 75th anniversary year of Henry S. Wellcome's death, the Wellcome Library, named after him because it was created by him in his lifetime, has added the 750,000th work to its online catalogue (online at http://catalogue.wellcome.ac.uk) . That's a myriad's worth of catalogue records for every year that has passed since the Library's founder died in 1936. And since The Wellcome Trust came into being on Wellcome's death, these electronic records have all been created in the 75 years of the Wellcome Trust's stewardship of Wellcome's legacy. In their present electronic form they have been created over the last thirty years, but the essential pre-cataloguing work of identification and arrangement started in Henry S. Wellcome's own lifetime.

Work number 750,000 is a set of six paintings in acrylic on wood, which formed the walls of the shack of a voudun healer in Benin, West Africa. A slight detour on terminology: "voudun" is the Benin version, as distinct from the Haitian version "vodou", and the English word "voodoo". That last word has been made familiar in the Anglophone world –- especially for the Louisiana version -- by the tabloid press and through Hollywood films such as White Zombie (1932). It is of course now used in English for irrational beliefs generally, as in "voodoo economics" (over 400,000 hits in Google) and "voodoo neuroscience".

Returning to the paintings, they were found in 2010 in the market-place of Adjarra, near the border of Benin with Nigeria. They were discovered there by Jack Bell, the proprietor of a London gallery specializing in sub-Saharan African paintings and acquired from him by the Wellcome Library in 2011.

Adjarra has a market place about half the size of a football field. Most of the vendors have stalls under a thatched covering, separated by uncovered walkways, similar to the market in nearby Porto Novo shown in this photograph. Alongside dealers in vegetables, clothes and electronic gadgets, there are a large number of sellers of voudun remedies: skulls, wooden fetish figures, dried animal flesh, and talismans in many forms (photograph here).

However, one specialist provider in the market place has his own premises: a corrugated iron shack formerly decorated with what are now the Wellcome Library's paintings.
Inside the shack, the proprietor provided voudun treatments promoting sexual health, by offering animal parts to be used as carriers of spirits against diseases. And on the outside, he advertised, through these paintings, the conditions that he thought would persuade the local populace to seek his services.

The six paintings form three pairs: men, women, and organs, and have text in English – presumably for the benefit of people coming over the Nigerian border, as the main language of Benin is French. (One word, "boile", is in franglais.) The paintings of men show syphilis and gonorrhoea; those of women show pregnancy (desired or problematic) and breast cancer. For both sexes there are graphic depictions of urogenital organs, the eye, and leg-sores. The choice of subjects raises the question as to why only men are shown with sexually transmitted diseases: other factors apart, they may be workers in the trade in oil and petrol across the frontier from Nigeria. Passers-by, even if they did not read English, would be left in no doubt as to the speciality of this healer, and customers would appreciate the ability to have a confidential consultation in the privacy of the healer's shack.


For some people accustomed to different conventions of figuration (not to mention therapy), the painted figures may be disturbing: the outlines are strong but not differentiated in strength, and sometimes seemingly arbitrary: the depiction of the feet for instance, or the thighs of the woman shown above, suggests that a cropping stencil was used. And talking of different conventions: the lettering is in Oxford blue on a background of Cambridge blue, respectable academic associations for our practitioner!

The Wellcome collections differ from many other medically-related historical collections in that they did not arise from a medical institution such as a hospital, a medical school, a college of medical specialists or a university medical department. The Wellcome organizations have never treated patients. Rather they arose from the interdisciplinary research interests of one man, whose collection emphasized the horizontal links across conventional fields of study, unified only as the understanding of mankind. These paintings from Benin arise from an intermixture of cultures, placing English medical illustrations at the service of West African religion and cosmology. What could be more suitable as a 75th anniversary tribute to the memory of that man, Henry Solomon Wellcome?

For copyright purposes, the paintings are orphan works. Rights holders are invited to contact the Wellcome Library.

 
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