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REPRESENTATIONS OF HAITI

Contemporary Haitian Art: Marilyn Houlberg

On the Life of “Mambo Marilyn”

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An alter in Marilyn Houlberg’s Studio. Photo: Bill Bollendorf

Marilyn Houlberg was born on July 17th, 1939 in Chicago, Illinois. She earned an Associate of Arts degree from Wright Junior College in 1959 and a Bachelors in Fine Arts from the University of Chicago in 1963. Houlberg traveled extensively after graduation, including visits to Libya, Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria. In 1965, Houlberg was awarded a scholarship for graduate study at the University of Chicago, where she earned a Masters of Teaching in Art History. She made several trips to the African continent, particularly to Nigeria, between 1961 and 2005. In 1973, she graduated with a Masters of Arts from the University College London after completing her thesis, “Yoruba Twin Sculpture and Ritual.”

Houlberg sought to self-reflexively address the Western anthropological gaze through her photographic practice and her writing on authenticity and art. Her photographs and collections of visual art from around the world are housed at various institutions. The Marilyn Houlberg Nigeria collection and Marilyn Houlberg Haiti Collection can be found at the Smithsonian.

The care with which she photographed her subjects and engaged with visual art practices from self-expression to spirituality of the African diaspora evidence her efforts to subvert pervasive essentialist readings of non-Western art and artists from the continent to the Caribbean. Her interdisciplinary approach to scholarship allowed for the contextualization of her photography through published articles such as “Social Hair: Tradition and Change in Yoruba Hairstyles in Southwestern Nigeria” and, in turn, her academic writing is anchored by striking images. She intended for her photographs and to a large extent her scholarship to be a presentation of the already-determined practices of the people whose cultures she studied abroad. In her images of Nigerian sitters, for example, she photographed them according to their direction; some of her photographs are captioned with such requests and instructions.

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Houlberg seated with André Pierre in the artist’s home, Haiti,
March 2005. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art.

Houlberg took a special interest in the art and religion of Haiti, where her enthusiasm earned her a reputation as “bon vivant” and her affinity for and study of Vodou earned her the nickname “Mambo Marilyn” (the word ‘mambo’ refers to a Vodou priestess). As a result, her Chicago gallery space, which was overflowing with Haitian art which she brought back with her to the U.S., was called “Mambo Marilyn’s Studio.” Despite the tumultuous and violent political conflict in Haiti in the latter half of the 20th century, Houlberg continued to travel there as often as possible, supporting artists by purchasing their work, bringing supplies to them, and assisting them with visa applications to travel to the U.S. A recent Smithsonian Institution “Pioneering Women Photographers” blog detailing her practice notes:

“As Houlberg’s field notes and photographs progress chronologically, they demonstrate how she positioned herself as an adept facilitator for the exhibition, reception, and acquisition of Haitian art internationally, especially during times of hardship and unrest. During the U.S.-led embargo of Haiti (1991–94), Houlberg would often bring supplies and materials for artists, since goods were increasingly scarce in Haiti itself. Among her letters in the archives are those written by artists like Yves Telemak requesting materials from Houlberg or thanking her for the delivery of supplies of colorful beads and sequins, which would be sewn onto drapo (Vodou flags). Often, these deliveries would be exchanged for commissioned works that would then enter Houlberg’s ever-growing collection of flags.”

The Marilyn Houlberg Collection at the Haitian Art Society includes many of the works she collected during this period, which often center on religious and spiritual themes, such as depictions of lwa, saints, and ceremonies. Much of the now-canonical Haitian art in museum and gallery collections landed in or passed through Houlberg’s studio, including the following works (photographed by Bill Bollendorf) by Rudy Azor, Jean Herald Celeur, and Didier Civil:

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Rudy Azor, Mazaca et Gueudeh-La-Croix, 1990. Embroidered and sequined flag.
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Jean Herard Celeur, Untitled (Three Figures on Motorcycles). 2001. Wood, Metal, mixed media.
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Didier Civil, Gede triptych, 2006, Acrylic on canvas

Houlberg included many of the above works in the exhibitions she curated alongside her long-time collaborator, David Cosentino, professor of African folklore and mythology at UCLA, including “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou,” which opened to enthusiastic reviews at the Fowler Museum at UCLA in 1995 before traveling to other museums, including the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

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Donald Cosentino and Marilyn Houlberg in Haiti, 2005.

She also organized exhibitions that opened in Port-au-Prince. In 1999, “Creative Inspiration: The Arts of Haitian Vodou,” opened at Le Musee d’Art Haitien du College Saint Pierre in Pétion-Ville, which also housed the 2002 exhibition, “Haiti: Vodou Visionaries,” before it traveled to Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago.

In her last collaboration with Cosentino, Houlberg helped to organize In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st-Century Haitian Art, alongside Patrick A. Polk, Leah Gordon, and Katherine Smith. In Extremis opened at the Fowler Museum in September 2012, three months after Houlberg’s passing.

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Exhibition Catalogue for In Extremis edited by Donald Cosentino.

Multidisciplinary artist and writer | Ph.D. student in Art History at Northwestern University.

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