The Haitian Rushes by Maya Deren

1 Oct 2015 - 17 Jan 2016 | Johann Jacobs Museum

Maya Deren (1917-1961) is considered the most important avant-garde filmmaker of the 20th century. Her film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, filmed with Alexander Hammid) is an integral part of the modernist canon.

Between 1947 and 1955, Deren made several trips to Haiti to study dance and trance in the context of Voudoun rituals. The artist died in 1961, leaving the six hours of film stock from Haiti unedited. Yet the material is also evidence of the rare balancing act Deren attained with her camera: the film neither ossifies in the aloofness of anthropological observation, nor collapses in romantic over-identification.

In cooperation with the Anthology Film Archives (New York) and filmmaker Martina Kudláček (Vienna), the Johann Jacobs Museum will undertake a restoration of this almost unknown material, which will be presented to the public upon completion. In addition, cultural anthropologist Silvy Chakkalakal (Basel) will map the artistic-scientific context surrounding Deren’s Haitian Rushes. Deren, for example, was inspired by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson’s ethnographic footage of children’s games and learning to dance, which they had brought from Bali.

Like a test arrangement, this first exhibition on Deren will set out the materials and forms that are indispensable to understanding the Haitian Rushes and Maya Deren’s film language.


Mead, Bateson and the Visual Anthropology

Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson are considered pioneers of “Visual Anthropology.” Their field research on Bali in the 1930s systematically used photography and film for the first time. They interpreted culture as a sensual, harmonious whole that cannot be grasped with text and numbers alone, but requires genuinely aesthetic means of access. Ritual trance acts and dances were a favorite object of study for Mead and Bateson, because the close connection between the individual body and the totality of a culture reveals itself in them. Yet despite the aesthetic concession, the two never gave up the role of the uninvolved observer.

Maya Deren viewed all the Bali footage (more than 12 hours) in preparation for her Haiti trip and wrote down her impressions and thoughts. While Mead and Bateson put the photographic record at the service of depicting a given reality, Deren saw the power of the film medium in its ability to create a new reality.

“And on the way back that whole discussion with S. who
 said maybe I would eventually abandon film and become an anthropologist. And my insistence that I would never be satisfied analyzing the nature of a given reality but would want to make my own. And his answer that that attitude brought to anthropology might make a new branch of it. And my answer that perhaps in introducing the anthroplogical attitude into film I was making a new branch of film. Well—maybe… ” (Maya Deren, Notebooks, Feb. 23, 1947)

Haiti – Paradise an Hell of the New World

In September 1791, shortly after the outbreak of slave revolts on Saint-Domingue, the British Ministry of the Interior sent historian Bryan Edwards to the French colony; he was to report on the situation on the island and determine whether the French colonists would welcome a potential invasion by the British.

Saint-Domingue – present-day Haiti – was known as a “paradise of the New World” from the 17th to the beginning of the 18th century. The fertile soil, abundant freshwater sources and warm, mountain-protected climate in the coastal regions offered ideal conditions for cultivating valuable raw materials. Nearly half of the sugar and 60% of the coffee consumed in Europe came from Saint-Domingue plantations. The colony was also a global market leader in cotton and indigo production, making France the owner of one of the most lucrative colonies of that time. This enormous, sustained output was only possible with slave labor. Up to 40,000 forced laborers were imported to Saint-Domingue from West Africa in the boom times. Their life expectancy on the plantations was approximately 6 years. According to Edwards, the population on Saint-Domingue included 30,831 white Europeans, approximately 480,000 enslaved Africans, and 20,000 “people of color.” These “people of color”— individuals of mixed descent—formed a special social class, because as the “free colored” they were allowed to own land, hold slaves, and operate their own plantations. Many of them came into considerable wealth and were envied by whites and blacks alike. However, they had no rights, no right to an education within the colony, were not allowed to hold public or political office and could not vote in elections.

Bryan Edwards, An Historical Survey Of The French Colony In The Island of St. Domingue: Comprehending a Short Account Of Its Ancient Government, Political State, Population, Productions, And Exports; A Narrative Of The Calamities Which Have Desolated The Country Ever Since The Year 1789, With Some Reflections On Their Causes And Probable Consequences; And A Detail Of The Military Transactions Of The British Army In That Island To The End of 1794, Printed for John Stockdale, London 1797.

By the time Edwards arrived in Saint-Domingue, the one-time island paradise lay in ashes. Plantation owners and French officials lived in fear of raids by rebels, whose hatred of their oppressors discharged in brutal massacres. Shocked by the prevailing conditions, Edwards revised his original order to feel the pulse of the colonists and instead attempted to analyze the causes of this misery. He describes complications the French Revolution introduced to French colonial policy, as the ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity” were incompatible with an economy based on institutionalized slavery.

Edwards cites the example of Vincent Ogé, who was born in Saint-Domingue in 1755 as the son of a white farmer and a free colored woman and had received a good education in Bordeaux. Ogé was in Paris at the start of the French Revolution in 1789. With support from the Society of the Friends of the Blacks (Société des Amis des Noirs) and other colored people of his class, he pressured the French National Assembly to pass a law that would grant colored landowners on Saint-Domingue the same rights as white plantation owners.

Although the National Assembly did issue a decree promising more rights to the free, colored population in March 1790, it avoided a clear articulation of who should be eligible to vote in the colony, and whether the decree applied to “free colored” people. Confident that decisive political progress had been made, Ogé returned to Saint-Domingue in October 1790 only to discover that the local government refused to enact the decree. That same month, Ogé and 300 other free “men of color” organized an attack on the men of the French Colonial Assembly to obtain these rights by force. But the rebellion was short-lived. Ogé and his followers were soon captured and executed on the wheel at the public square in Le Cap in February 1791. The months that followed brought more decrees and edicts from France, their incompatibility only fueling the crisis in Saint-Domingue.

With the example of Ogé, Edwards shows that the severity of the crises owed not only to France’s divided foreign policy but also to the gap between the local social classes. The Haitian Revolution broke out in August 1791, ushering in the first successful slave revolt in history. But this war (which ended with the founding of the Republic of Haiti in 1804) was not waged between clear fronts of black and white, slave and free man. It was a bloody civil war that was exacerbated and prolonged by the intervention of armies and mercenaries sent by the colonial powers.

Icon of the Revolution

Excerpt from the Haitian constitution of 1805

Reconstructed icon of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa (15th century)

The legendary “Black Madonna of Częstochowa”—a 14th century Mary icon from Poland with a dark face and deep incisions on her right cheek—plays an important role in Vodoun iconography. Carried in the hand luggage of Polish mercenaries, the figure made its way to Haiti in 1802. Napoleon had ordered these mercernaries as reinforcements for his troops sent to crush the first successful slave rebellion in modern colonial history—a slave revolt inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution.

Sent by their French fathers to study in Paris, privileged men of color had gotten wind of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” at the Sorbonne and wanted to apply these principles to the grievances of Haitian slave society. But a real revolution needed an incendiary spark, and this came by way of a militant Vodoun spirit known as Erzulie Dantor. Erzulie Dantor took possession of a priestess during a ceremony and rallied the oppressed to rise up against their masters.

After a number of devastating defeats for the Napoleonic army, the Polish soldiers switched sides and joined the slaves or new rulers. Since then, Erzulie Dantor also bears the striking facial scars of the “Black Madonna” in addition to the sword and the pierced heart, her main symbols. The Haitian legend has it that Erzulie suffered the scars in the fight against the French. Descendants of the “Polonais” continue to live in Haiti today.

Cultural Relativism & Harlem Renaissance

German-American anthropologist Franz Boas attracted a lively circle of politically active scholars, writers, and artists in the recessional New York of the 1920s-40s, including Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Maya Deren. All of them shared a belief in Boasian “cultural relativism,” which argues that Western culture has outlived its purpose as a universal standard and that every society should be understood in terms of its own system of norms and values. This group was especially interested in formal and creative expression. Ritual performances, dances and ceremonies were to be not only anthropologically explored and described, but also incorporated into one’s own choreographic work, stories, and feature films.

This enthusiasm for the cultural Other went hand in hand with a critical attitude towards existing social norms and mechanisms of exclusion in US society. The sensuous physicality of dance and spiritual absorption of trance were considered as a holistic, creative, and sexually-liberated life practice that stood in contrast to rationalist modern life in the West.

African-American writers and intellectuals of the “Harlem Renaissance” offered a countercultural perspective, and promoted an appreciation of Black culture in the United States. Hurston’s ethnographic research on the Hoodoo practice in the Southern states and her famous radio interview on the zombie have strong political connotations.

Haiti, which the United States occupied for strategic reasons in World War I, played a key role in countercultural creativity as the island’s fate was exemplary in demonstrating both the history of slavery and the ongoing political and cultural oppression of the black population. The field research undertaken by Katherine Dunham, Alan Lomax, Hurston, and Deren was also always concerned with preserving the dignity and voice of those who had been marginalized.

Alan Lomax Haiti Collection: Sixty 10-inch disc of songs, stories, and instrumentals recorded in Haiti by Alan Lomax (Dec. 1936, Jan. 1937).

In 1936, established anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston enlisted the help of Alan Lomax, a young folklorist and ethnomusicologist, in creating a representative collection of Haitian music.

Vodoun was illegal into the 1950s. Nevertheless, Lomax managed to participate in secret Vodoun ceremonies and to record ritual songs and rhythms. But his real passion was for songs sung by poor workers, which he describes in terms not entirely free of racist, stereotypical undertones:


„… two stevedores leap into a corner where one picks up a little iron pipe or vaxine and the other a pair of rocks. The first man blows his pipe and the other cracks the flints together, and presently ten men are capering together on the floor of the warehouse… The men roar at each other like demons, and their backs creak under the awkward sacks. They dance and fling about like monkeys for an hour with never a pause, and suddenly you look up and the great stack of coffee has moved to the other side of the warehouse…“ (Alan Lomax, 1938)

A Still from Maya Deren’s film Meditation on Violence, black and white, 16mm, 15mins, 1948.

The dancer in a trance, the possessed and the zombie—all anthropological figures—quickly found their way into the Hollywood myth factory. Katherine Dunham was an anthropologist and choreographer. She studied dance in Haiti, Martinique, and Jamaica and incorporated these same movements into her own revues.

Maya Deren worked as Dunham’s private secretary in the early 1940s.

Maya Deren in Haiti


In September 1947 I disembarked in Haiti, for an eight-month stay, with eighteen motley pieces of luggage; seven of these consisted of 16-millimeter motion-picture equipment (three cameras, tripods, raw film stock, etc.), of which three were related to sound recording for a film, and three contained equipment for still photography. Among my papers I carried a certificate of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for „creative work in the field of motion pictures“ (as distinguished from documentary film projects), which was a reward for the stubborn effort that had been involved in creating, producing and successfully distributing four previous films with purely private and limited means and in the face of a cinema tradition completely dominated by the commercial film industry on the one hand and the documentary film on the other. Also among my papers was a carefully conceived plan for a film in which Haitian dance, as purely a dance form, would be combined (in montage principle) with various non-Haitian elements. I recite all these facts because they are evidence of a concrete, defined film project undertaken by one who was acknowledged as a resolute and even stubbornly willful individual.

Today, in September 1951 (four years and three Haitian trips later), as I write these last few pages of the book, the filmed footage (containing more ceremonies than dances) lies in virtually its original condition in a fire – proof box in the closet; the recordings are still on their original wire spools; the stack of still photographs is tucked away in a drawer labeled „to be printed,“ and the elaborate design for the montaged film is some – where in my files, I am not quite sure where.

This disposition of the objects related to my original Haitian project is, to me, the most eloquent tribute to the irrefutable reality and impact of Vodoun mythology. I had begun as an artist, as one who would manipulate the elements of a reality into a work of art in the image of my creative integrity; and I end by recording, as humbly and accurately as I can, the logics of a reality which had forced me to recognize its integrity, and to abandon my manipulations.


With these lines, New York filmmaker Maya Deren begins her treatise The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1953), which would remain the only conclusive testament to her experiences in Haiti.(1) Deren did not really touch the mentioned film, sound and photo material before her untimely death in 1961. While the film rolls totaling some six hours or longer have been stored in the Anthology Film Archives (in coffee cans labeled by Deren) and threaten to crumble into dust, both the sound reels and the negatives are currently housed at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. In other words, Deren’s magnum opus remains a powerful fragment, a construction site that – as Deren would have it – is, on the one hand, a testament to the failure of a decidedly modernist concept. Yet this failure is also rooted in a key moment that characterizes every transcultural experience. This key moment is the abyss over which the trans (well known to mean “over” or “between”) builds its more or less precarious bridges. Deren didn’t just look at this abyss in Haiti – she also created a literary monument to it in the last chapter of Divine Horsemen, in which she describes her own possession by a loa during a Vodoun ceremony.

Deren’s original concept, which took her to Haiti for the first time in 1947, was a film that would formally link rituals from a wide range of cultural contexts. The Caribbean Island was to be only one point of reference among others; Deren was also thinking about children’s games in Western societies, for example. In the artistic milieu of 1940s New York, Deren was not alone in her anthropological interest in the dramatization of cultural patterns in dances and ceremonies. Research on myths or, more generally, the influential force of unconscious cultural patterns played an important role in (exiled) surrealist circles, and mythical speculation (including the desire to create new myths) also influenced the artistic manifestos of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, for example. More significant for Deren was the research conducted by anthropologist and choreographer Katherine Dunham (1909-2006), for whom Deren worked as a secretary in the early 1940s. Dunham had studied forms of dance as a medium of religious release or possession within the Caribbean’s African Diaspora, and spent several months in Haiti in the mid-1930s to explore it.(2)

Another important influence for Deren’s Haiti project was her dialogue with Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, two pioneering figures in visual anthropology. Both had systematically employed film and photography during their 1930s fieldwork in Bali.(3) Deren not only studied this Bali material in depth; Bateson was even willing to allow Deren to use this material for her aesthetic purposes. In fact, Deren drew her original inspiration from correspondence she had with Bateson in 1946 about the anthropological exhibition “Arts of the South Seas” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She writes:

As a matter of fact, you praise the exhibit precisely for the fact that each grouping of materials was true to the individual culture which it represented, at the same time that these groupings were so arranged in reference to each other as to create a „sensible“pattern which transcends
them all and even strengthened them, each in their individual terms as well. It is this concept of relationships upon which I wished to build my film…(4)

And more concretely in relation to the film project:

My problem, in a sense, was to build a fugue of cultures. But each voice must have its own melodic integrity. Consequently, my preoccupation with searching out a variety of cultures which had retained, in their own terms, their homogeneity was not based upon my personal interest in exoticism, but out of the need to have a variety of homogeneous structures which
would relate to each other in the film rather than blend into each other in the “melting pot” manner.(5)

Deren’s thoughts consequently revolved around how to exhibit foreign cultures, no matter whether in a museum or in a film context. She sought to capture what was special about each culture on the basis of comparison or, better yet, the communication of forms. As noted, Deren had no genuine interest in Haiti at first except as an example of “unified structure.” The fearsome complexity of Haiti’s political landscape became clear to her only after she had gone ashore with her eighteen crates and suitcases.


In the late 15th century, Spain colonized a Caribbean island under Christopher Columbus, which they named Hispaniola. Spain officially ceded the western part of the island (present-day Haiti) to France in 1679 in the course of intra-European conflicts, and the colony was renamed Saint- Domingue. Saint-Domingue became a pilot project for the rather late onset of French colonial policy under Louis XIV, the so-called “Sun King.” In 1685, Louis XIV enacted Code noir, a comprehensive legal framework that introduced the concept of “race” in order to regulate the handling of slavery in the French colonies. In fact, the slave economy was seen as a prerequisite for the proto-industrial, enormously labor-intensive cultivation of sugar cane. Saint-Domingue soon accounted for 40% of Europe’s sugar consumption (and approximately 60% of European coffee) and became the richest colony in the world at that time. (Anyone who has ever wondered how Versailles financed itself now knows the answer.) The Atlantic triangular slave trade took 10,000 to 40,000 slaves per year from the West African coast to plantations on Saint Domingue. By the French Revolution (1789), the colony’s population included half a million slaves. By contrast, the number of white colonial rulers amounted to around 30,000 people; these were joined by a few tens of thousands of gens de couleur, people of mixed African-European origin who were allowed to exercise certain freedoms and own property.

After many smaller uprisings (mostly instigated by groups of escaped slaves) revolution erupted in Saint-Domingue in 1791. This revolution, which was partly inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution (but whose real catalyst was a Vodoun ceremony) registered as a global, epoch-making event: European thinking at the time did not account for the idea that slaves could free themselves. (6) While the Girondins in Paris welcomed the Revolution and French representatives accepted the abolition of slavery in 1793, the British tried to take advantage of the political confusion in Saint-Domingue starting 1794, and large parts of the white and mixed elite supported their occupation attempt.

It was only in 1800 that African-born military leader Toussaint Louverture successfully defeated the British. In 1802, Napoleon sent an army to Saint-Domingue to recapture the “Pearl of the Antilles.” The armed forces also included the Polish Legions. Although the French captured Toussaint Louverture, local troops triumphed in 1804 under their new leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines—not least because many European soldiers succumbed to yellow fever. The Polish Legions, or what remained of them, changed sides to join the new rulers. In 1805, Haiti finally declared its independence and gave itself a national flag by eliminating the middle, “white” stripe from the tricolor. In 1838, the French Republic demanded the present-day equivalent of US $19 billion for the official recognition of Haiti’s independence—a service of debt that completely crippled the already devastated country’s development and was only canceled in 1947. Today, Haiti is considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; 75% of the population subsists on less than 2 US dollars per day.


This all-too-brief historical outline nevertheless shows that the country is anything but a “unified structure.” Forms of Vodoun were influenced by the traditions of various African ethnic groups, and these were also enriched with Roman Catholic and Masonic figures and symbols during the colonial regime. The Vodoun flag in our exhibition offers a good example of this kind of interconnection. Embroidered out of sequins, the image shows Erzulie Dantor on a golden background. Erzulie Dantor is an important figure in the Vodoun spirit world; she represents both motherhood and war. The bleeding heart in the design recalls icons of the Virgin Mary, but she also carries weapons. Representations of Erzulie have also absorbed a feature of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa: the Caribbean Madonna translates two deep notches in the lower left side of the face (sword blows to the Polish icon in the Middle Ages) in the form of facial scars. Lithograph reproductions of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa migrated to Haiti in knapsacks carried by Napoleonic Polish Legions and became part of the Haitian formal repertoire after the Poles switched sides.(7)


Deren instantly responded to the complexity of the situation she found in Haiti. The filmed material shows that she pulled away from every ethnographic perspective and gave herself over to the immanence of the ceremonies—to their rhythm and rules, but also their improvisational method. She used her personality to communicate with Haitian personalities at eye level. Rather than interact with them as a “participating observer,” as she knew from Bateson and Mead, she became an almost a-subjective, neither cognitive nor interest-driven element of an experiential context, albeit one with a camera.


1) Maya Deren, author’s preface to Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (New York: McPherson&Company, 2004 [1953]), 5-6.

2) See Katherine Dunham, Dances of Haiti (Los Angeles: UCLA Center for Afro-American Studies, 1983, 41-57.

3) See Sylvie Chakkalakal, “Margaret Meads Anthropologie der Sinne – Ethnografie als ästhetische und aisthetische Praxis,” in Zwischen Objekt, Text, Bild und Performance: Repräsentationspraktiken ethnografischen Wissens (Berlin: Panama, forthcoming. Chakkalakal did the research on Deren, Mead
and Bates on for this exhibition.

4) “An Exchange of Letters between Maya Deren and Gregory Bateson”, in: October, Vol. 14 (autumn 1980), 16-20. Deren’s letter dates from Dec. 9, 1946.

5) Ibid.

6) See Susan Buck-Morss, “Hegel and Haiti”, in: Critical Inquiry 26 (Summer 2000), 821-865.

7) See Sebastian Rypson, Being Poloné in Haiti: Origins, Survivals, Development, and Narrative Production of the Polish Presence in Haiti (Warsaw: Wydawca 2008), 82-90. Adam Szymczyk recommended this book to us.


We would like to thank Martina Kudláček both for her expertise and the Deren related material she contributed to this exhibition, as well as Anthology Film Archives and Jonas Mekas.



»Any distance between my camera and the scene which I am shooting makes me strangely uneasy... The less room I have, the safer I am.«