Ex-Swiss diplomat seeks funds for museum to house vast hoard of religious artefacts
The front room of Marianne Lehmann's neat suburban house is almost exactly how you would imagine the home of a retired Swiss expatriate. There is the antique furniture, the fossil collection and the three-volume History of Swiss Neutrality.
And then there is the gravestone decorated with human skulls.
A former employee of the Swiss consulate, 64-year-old Ms Lehmann makes an unlikely crusader for the voodoo soul. But inside her neat suburban house in the Haitian capital she has amassed one of the largest collections of Haitian sacred art in the world.
After nearly 20 years of collecting, she has gathered together some 2,000 sacred objects which she hopes to save from centuries of prejudice and neglect.
Outsiders have long portrayed voodoo as a particularly malevolent form of black magic, but the religion has played an essential role in Haitian society since before independence.
Voodoo is the soul of Haiti. It's the memory of a nation, Ms
Some of the pieces are more than a century old, and she fears that the collection may not survive unless it finds a permanent home.
In the crowded hallway, sculptures of top-hatted voodoo priests tower over a sequinned cemetery cross. On dusty shelves, a four-headed dragon sits next to a child's baby doll dressed in the sequinned robes befitting the voodoo spirit of love.
There's no other collection like it in Haiti. It's part of the
world's cultural heritage, but it's in danger of rotting away,
says Anne Lescot, a Haitian art historian.
For the past three years, Ms Lehmann has been seeking financial support to establish a museum where the collection could be put on permanent display.
Unesco has contributed $20,000 (£14,000) towards indexing and photographing the collection, but UN officials estimate that a further $30,000 is needed to prepare a complete inventory.
After moving to Haiti in 1957, Ms Lehmann bought her first artefact 18
years ago: a crude statue of a three-horned warrior spirit with a pipe
clenched between his teeth.
Electricity passed through me when I
saw him. I was astonished. I immediately knew that it was something
very special. I bought it, and then people started bringing me more
and more statues, she said.
Since then, she has ploughed all her savings into the collection, which has now overflowed from her home into a neighbour's house across the street.
Both buildings are crammed with sacred items, many of which - such as the two-metre wooden drums and maracas festooned with snake vertebrae - were once used in rituals to summon voodoo spirits.
In one gloomy corner leans a set of gold-framed mirrors draped with
heavy chains and marked with sacred symbols.
They belonged to the
family of a former president, but I'm not allowed to say which
one, Ms Lehmann says.
Further inside, a pair of 18th-century slave manacles lies rusting on the staircase. Upstairs, a six-square-metre room is packed with life-sized figures whose sequinned costumes are covered in a thick layer of dust.
The collection is definitely in danger. There is no kind of
conservation, and many objects made of wood or fabric have been
damaged by insects, Ms Lescot says.
Woodworm and clothes moths are just the latest assailants in a long
history of attacks against Haitian sacred art.
Voodoo has always
been under attack. Thousands of religious artworks have been
destroyed, Ms Lehmann adds.
According to the anthropologist Laennec Hurbon, voodoo - which has its
roots in west African pantheist religions - has been the victim of bad
publicity since the first African slaves were brought to the Caribbean
in the 16th century.
Voodoo has been satanised since the times of
slavery. The Europeans justified the slave trade by saying that they
were rescuing the blacks from devil worship.
Under the brutal plantation system, clandestine ceremonies helped the slaves to maintain a sense of identity and resistance, and voodoo priests were among the ringleaders of the 1791 revolution - the only successful slave revolt in history.
Despite the religion's key role in the Haitian revolution, voodoo was banned for many years after independence. In the 1940s the Roman Catholic church declared war on voodoo with a series of anti-superstition campaigns in which temples were ransacked and religious artefacts were thrown on the bonfire.
Since then, Hollywood movies have ensured that the religion has never managed to shake off its image as a kind of black magic whose adherents torture wax dolls and conjure up zombies through blood sacrifice.
Although the faith was finally given official recognition in the 1987 constitution, American Protestant missionaries working in Haiti continue to denounce voodoo as superstition or witchcraft.
Many techniques of sacred art have already been lost for ever, and the ongoing economic crisis has left voodoo worshippers with less and less money to decorate their temples, Ms Lescot says.
There's been a huge loss of ritual art. The tradition of sculpture
is dying out and most voodoo temples are not nearly as elaborate as
anything in Marianne Lehmann's collection.
We must save these things for the country, Ms Lehmann
It is the Haitian heritage.