Maya Deren’s fascination with New World African culture was an enduring leitmotif of her artistic vision. She began her career with Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe, which was famous for exploring the mythological roots of Caribbean ritual movement, and by 1942 she was publishing articles about Haitian religion and dance. She focused on the spiritual implications of Vodou, which inspired her to spend years in Haiti, where she produced film footage, hundreds of photographic negatives, and a brilliant ethnographic book. Deren’s initiation into the practices of Vodou in the late 1940s and early 1950s was not, therefore, tangential to her avant-garde film work but central to it. Up until her premature and sudden death in 1961, this artist found nourishment in the concepts of the metaphysical and the physical, of space and time, of life and death manifested in African-based religions, ritual, and dance.
This is an especially important point to make when we consider that Deren’s work is most often viewed in the context of Surrealism. Like Claude Cahun, she was a friend of André Breton’s. Deren, however, denied any connection with the movement’s aesthetic aims. The Surrealist obsession with duality—with the lines separating the real and the imaginary, the rational and the irrational, the waking life and the dream—was, in fact, diametrically opposed to Deren’s fascination with the continuity of life and death, the physical and the spiritual, and “I” and the “non-I.” Talking about her film Meshes of the Afternoon, she stated that she was interested in the credibility of the unreal, not the incredibility of the unreal. “I am concerned,” she wrote, “with that point of contact between the real and the unreal, where the unreal manifests itself in reality.” Her films were intended as imaginary arenas where this point of contact could be visualized—where boundaries normally fixed could dissolve, or become wildly flexible; where protagonists could move freely between dreams and waking life without ever resolving the differences between the two; where nature and culture, urban and rural environments could be separated (and linked) by a single step; where past and future selves could meet along the road, fracturing into clones moving along parallel paths of time and space. Her years in Haiti, and her intense involvement with Vodou, can be seen as her quest to experience a living culture that gave “credibility to the unreal,” and thereby embody the vision she sought in her experimental films.
Maya Deren’s most significant contribution to postmodern discourse might be her profound understanding of the ties that link the avant-garde and the “primitive” [sic],the Western and the Other. She first went to Haiti on a Guggenheim Fellowship; her application stated that she intended to make a film about ritual and dance. Early into the project, however, she became aware that she could not separate the dance from the ritual; the ritual from the religion; the religion from the history and the local culture. She set aside the film project in order to study the organic wholeness of Vodou within the context of Haitian life. (Deren never finished the film, but her footage was posthumously edited by her husband Teiji Ito and his wife Cherel. Her experiences were most fully explored in her book Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, which was initially proposed and supported by the noted mythologist and folklorist Joseph Campbell.) Her initiation into the sacred mysteries of Vodou was her homage to a religious system based on the psychic phenomena of “possession,” when during a religious ritual the identity of a living serviteur (worshipper) is temporarily displaced by the spirit of an ancestral lwa (deity). The Haitian community’s belief in the normality of such happenings reflects a cosmology with complex spiritual implications, where ritual practices have the power to unite mortal and immortal in a single dance. Possessed worshippers take on the attributes (the voice, the gestures, the costumes) that are characteristic of the lwa in question; their physical transformation differentiates their mundane social identity from the identity of the spirit that temporarily inhabits their bodies. In “becoming” the ancestral deities, these serviteurs transcend themselves, allow themselves to join forces with their history, with the supernatural archetypes of their race. Time and eternity, the living and the dead, become One—and the relativistic universe proposed in Deren’s films becomes manifest.
In the course of a Vodou ritual, therefore, the donning of costume elements signals the breakthrough of the “unreal” into the “real,” the emergence of the fantastic into the social body itself. Among Maya Deren’s Haitian photographs, a number document worshippers possessed by Gede, the spirit of the dead. Some of the worshippers are male, some female, but this gender difference becomes irrelevant when the individual is “mounted” by the deity, that is, when the body is overtaken by energies stronger than those that mark us in the social world. The similarity of gesture, of body language, of the cigarette (Gede’s attribute) among all who undergo this transformation proffers a definition of “masquerade” that far exceeds the limited psychological or feminist frameworks common in twentieth century thought. Rather than a “false” identity hiding a “real” one, these shifts in costume and persona propose in fact that the Self is not unitary; that it is as flexible, and as protean, as Deren herself in films like Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, and Ritual in Transfigured Time; that it holds within itself the capability of manifesting multiple facets of the collective history of the race, allowing all of us to transcend the limited gender, racial, historical, or cultural backgrounds into which we are born. Hardly a nihilistic splintering of identity, such a vision is a massive expansion of the normal Western concept of the human experience, a restructuring of the individual along lines that suggest that we are, one and all, essentially diverse.
Shelley Rice, Cocurator of Inverted Odysseys