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Thursday, 2 November, 2000, 10:31 GMT
Haitian spirit comes to Wales
Part of an altar to Baron Samedi
Detail of an altar to Baron Samedi, "lwa" of the dead, at Port-Au-Prince
A unique exhibition currently touring Wales gives an insight into a religion often viewed with suspicion and clouded by B-movie cliches.

South Wales photographer Phil Cope has spent the past 14 years recording images of vodou altars from both Haiti and the southern United States.

In Altarations, he offers an opportunity for people in Wales to explore ideas of belief, worship and spirituality at the start of a new Millennium.

Louisiana altar to Baron Samedi
Louisiana altar to Baron Samedi
The exhibition is part of a wider project - organised by the Cardiff-based ffotogallery - which asks "what are our modern altars?" and "what do we now worship?".

Altars are a universal religious phenomenon and act as a point of contact between the divine or spirit world and people's everyday lives.

Haiti -the poorest nation in the Northern Hemipshere - gained its freedom in 1803 by defeating Napoleon Bonaparte's expedition to put down a rebellion on the then-French colony of Sainte Dominique.

Vodou - the word means "spirit" - was the religion of the slaves and they turned to its leaders for help.

Which is why the initial act of rebellion in 1791 was led by a vodou high priest called Boukman.

At the end of the 12-year struggle Haiti became independent.

Altar to Ghede La Croix, Port Au Prince
Altar to Ghede La Croix, Port Au Prince
Vodou offers its believers access to healing powers and a connection with relatives and friends who have died.

It is infused with images of the Catholic faith which was imposed on the slaves by their masters but its roots lie in the mythology and customs of their original African beliefs.

The gods or spirits of vodou - called the "lwa" - appear by taking possession of their subjects.

The most important "lwa" require worship from their devotees and the altars are built as a focus for this.

Followers of vodou believe that only by showing such devotion will they provide a suitable "mount" for their gods.

Initiates fall into a trance and speak in tongues to mediate between the spirit world and the present.

Many vodou altars now borrow images from Western popular culture - especially those from films or TV programmes.

Altar to Cousin Zaca, Port-Au-Prince
Altar to Cousin Zaca, the "lwa" of the land, Port-Au-Prince
Barbie dolls can be seen on altars to Erzulie Danton, the "lwa" of beauty and love, while Star Wars' Darth Vader is associated with the warrior attributes of the Ogou family of spirits.

The exhibition can currently be seen at both g39 at Mill Lane, Cardiff, and at the Wyeside Arts Centre in Builth Wells.

It will tour Wales until next July.

A series of workshops is taking place during the exhibition's tour where people create their own altars, including images of the things they see as objects of worship.

Phil Cope plans to take an exhibition of photographs of these modern Welsh altars back to Haiti next year.

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