With an array of objects that are provocative, eclectic, beautiful, and, at their essence, sacred, the “Spirited Things” exhibition opening at the Fleming Museum this week is the product of years of work and collaborative vision among Marsh-Professor-at-Large J. Lorand Matory, Fleming staff, and students in religion professor Vicki Brennan’s classes.
The pieces on display are largely from Matory’s “Sacred Arts of the Black Atlantic Collection,” assembled across decades, inspired by both his religious faith and scholarly focus. Matory, Lawrence Richardson Professor of Cultural Anthropology and African and African American Studies at Duke University, connected with UVM via the Marsh program in 2013.
The new exhibition includes sacred objects from the Yoruba religion of West Africa, as well as Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santeria, Brazilian Candomble, and Caribbean Spiritism, faiths that emerged from the practices of enslaved Africans who blended their ancestral cultures with that of their captors.
“The items in the collection have been selected for their beauty, their iconographic accuracy, and their ritual power,” Matory says. “I have loved them and cared for them for nearly four decades. However, spirited things like these are not usually given a place in a museum of fine arts. So, I feel rapturous that my colleagues in the world-class Fleming Museum not only embraced the provocation posed by an under-appreciated aesthetic but also felt the same exaltation that I feel in the presence of these spirited things.”
Several weeks before the show’s opening, Fleming curator Andrea Rosen walks through the gallery where some displays are complete and others await finishing touches. She points out favorite pieces and discusses how the show has come together.
“An academic museum really thrives on collaborations like this. It is true of any collaboration—whether with a collector or a scholar or a living artist—that we as the museum get pushed to expand our comfort zone because of this meeting in the middle,” Rosen says. “Randy is a bit of a provocateur. Understandably and laudably so, he wants to get visitors to think about the fact that these objects are not exotic, they are not foreign, they are us. The very complex nature of them and the nuanced relationships they represent, that’s true of objects in our own lives, maybe in ways we don’t realize.”
The new exhibition traces to when religion professor Vicki Brennan’s classes began to study Matory’s “Sacred Arts of the Black Atlantic Collection” and the rituals of priestesses and priests of the Afro-Atlantic religions.
The first wave of Brennan’s students explored the collection via Matory’s website, curating a selection of objects and identifying themes, later presenting them to both Matory and the Fleming leadership. During a subsequent semester’s course, students in one of Brennan’s courses took the next step by beginning work on supplemental educational materials for the exhibition. This semester, her students will ethnographically document how audiences receive the show.
“They’ll examine issues of religion, race, representation, and display, especially concerning sacred objects and the staging of an exhibition about African and African-American religions in a museum located on a university campus in one of the least diverse and least religious states in the United States,” Brennan says.
She adds, “The student involvement in this project has been a great experience for them to learn more about how to apply the ideas and theories we talk about in class to real world contexts, such as the museum.”
As the Fleming features “Spirited Things” this semester, the museum is in its usual role as a place for aesthetic appreciation, but also becomes a site for religious veneration — that “expansion of comfort zone” curator Rosen mentioned — in order to present the objects in a more authentic context.
Two of the four altars that ground the exhibition will be ritually activated. On Tuesday, Sept. 26, and Wednesday, Sept. 27, practitioner Willie Zapata creates a Cuban Santeria anniversary altar. On Wednesday, Oct. 11, Haitian Vodou priestess Marie Maude Evans will give a lecture, and on Thursday, Oct. 12, she will lead a ritual celebration, open to the public, that will feature drummers and dancers.
Anticipating the opening and all that has led up to it, Matory says, “I still cannot believe it. Working in the gallery with my colleagues at the Fleming and thinking about this overall experience gives me goosebumps and make me feel slightly breathless.”
The Fleming Museum’s Fall Opening Reception is Thursday, Sept. 28, 5:30-7 p.m. In addition to “Spirited Things,” the museum will also celebrate the opening of “Herbert Barnett: Vermont Life and Landscape, 1940-1948.” Both special exhibitions run through Dec. 15, 2017.