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Out of Focus

SNF project Conflict and Cooperation. Episteme and Methods Between Art History, Art and Ethnology in the Performative Pictorial Practices of Vodun

The project Out of Focus. The artistic-ethnographic practice of Maya Deren and Leonore Mau investigates two historical positions of artistic engagement with Vodou in Haiti. In a collaboration between an art historian and artists we reexamine their work and ask how it can be productive for contemporary discourses on artistic research, questions of representation, the uses of archives, and (photography) ethics.

While Maya Deren’s work on Vodou is well known and has been the topic of extensive research (Clark et al. 1984/1988, Holl 2017, Keller 2015, Nichols 2001 and many others), the photos Leonore Mau (1916-2013) took when she traveled to Haiti with her partner, the writer Hubert Fichte (1935-1986) in the 1970s, are much less recognized and studied. Like Deren Mau photographed Vodou ceremonies, but also architecture, street scenes, people at work and at play, birth and death. The photos bring together artistic and documentary/ethnographic interests and her collaboration with Fichte presents an innovative form of combining text and image.


Out of Focus. The artistic-ethnographic practice of Maya Deren and Leonore Mau compares their approaches and situates them in their respective cultural, intellectual, and social contexts. It looks at the pictorial concepts with which Deren and Mau approached Vodou and at the forms of publication and display they used (film, photo book, reportage).

A fundamental question of our project addresses the representability of religious practices through photography (and film). The archive as well as the tradition of artist’s travels will be examined, thereby reflecting both on the concepts of 'homework' and 'fieldwork.'

The project focuses on Western artist’s approaches to Vodou and to Haiti, but today the photos Deren and Mau took can also become a tool for communication and exchange. What do the photos Deren and Mau took show and what do they not show? What do they tell us about the past and the present? Who are the people they photographed and engaged with and what relevance do/can their oeuvres have in Haiti today?

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