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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa: Marilyn Houlberg

This blog post about Marilyn Houlberg continues the series about our Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa project.  The following post was written by Dr. Peter Haffner, a post-doc fellow at the National Museum of African Art who spent nine months researching Haitian art and the work of Marilyn Houlberg in the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives.  He holds a Ph.D. from UCLA in Culture and Performance from the interdisciplinary Dept. of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA, focusing on contemporary Haitian arts and culture. In the fall, Dr. Haffner will join the Art History faculty at Centre College as an Assistant Professor.

Peter Haffner researching in the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, April 25, 2019, Photograph by Brad Simpson

Marilyn Houlberg (1939-2012) wore many hats during her lifetime: artist, photographer, art historian dedicated to the arts of Yorubaland and Haiti, professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, curator of major exhibitions of Haitian art in the United States, and a trained anthropologist. Common to all of her her roles was her advocacy and support for the arts and religious practices of peoples of African descent. Many who knew her well describe her as a “bon vivant,” fiercely independent and warmly eccentric. With her mirrored sunglasses, ornate head-wraps, flashy statement jewelry, and flowing black clothing, she purposely played with an ambiguously “witchy” self-presentation that, even though she herself was not a manbo, or Vodou priestess, the chance that she just might be granted a certain access all its own. 

Houlberg seated with André Pierre in the artist's home, Haiti,
March 2005, EEPA 2012-004-2770.  Photographed here during his last days, 
Houlberg had a long, collaborative relationship with the famed 
painter and oungan, André Pierre.
One can see the extent of this access documented in over 5,000 photographs and almost four decades of field notes and related ephemera available in the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives at the National Museum of African Art. From her earliest experiences in the field, Houlberg never shied from difficult situations. She cut her teeth doing field research and museum work in Nigeria during the tumultuous period of the Biafra civil war. While working at the National Museum of Lagos in the late 1960s, she helped catalog and secure the museum’s holdings of traditional art objects. In scores of handwritten pages, she recorded the accession numbers and descriptions of thousands of objects as unrest in the streets threatened to spill into the museum. Such altruism was not limited to the works in the museums, as she helped many of her Igbo colleagues hide within the museum (Cosentino 2012).

Ife-Olu Solaru dressing hair, Ikenne, Nigeria, September 29, 1973, EEPA 2005-002-0091.  One of the many examples of sculptural virtuosity of Yoruba women's hairstyles.

Yoruba woman with elaborate hairstyle, Ikenne, Nigeria,
September 29, 1973, EEPA-2005-002-0092
Her Nigerian field research in rural areas encompassed subjects of special interest. In the male-dominated field of anthropology, she focused on areas both overlooked by her male colleagues and ones potentially inaccessible to them because of gender. She wrote of the social and political significance of women’s hairstyles, and how certain styles could be read as responses to everything from political conditions of military rule in Nigeria to the religious diversity within its borders (Houlberg 1979). Perhaps most important was her acknowledgement of the transformations that occurred in cultural forms over time, and how the dynamic shifts in more “traditional” motifs in response to their exposure to contemporary practices and materials were signs of cultural dynamism, not a pollution of more “pure” older forms. Her work with ibeji, or twin figures, among Yoruba peoples is one major illustration of this. Houlberg found examples of modern technologies like photography incorporated into the practice of honoring deceased twins among Yoruba women, and how mass-produced plastic dolls were often used in place of more traditional carved wooden ere ibeji in order to represent and honor a twin who has passed on to the next world (Houlberg 1973).

Flag Day Parade, Haitian Army/Guard Civil, Cap Haitien, Haiti, May 18, 1976, EEPA 2012-004-0760.
Houlberg captured this official celebration of soldiers in the northern city of Cap Haitien during the height of Baby Doc Duvalier's autocratic regime. Note the red and black flags adopted by the Duvaliers, later changed back to the original blue and red.

Houlberg refocused her scholarly attention in the late 1970s as she directed her research towards ibeji as they manifested in Haiti. Known among local Vodou practitioners as marasa, twins in Haiti had their own sets of practices and beliefs. Her research showed how systems of devotion to the marasa were indebted to corresponding West African ibeji traditions, but also how they underwent transformations in new cultural and geographic settings that testified to the dynamic adaptability of cultures, even in the face of horrors like the Middle Passage and the plantation slavery system of colonial St. Domingue (as Haiti was known before the Revolution).

Drummers (bata), Yoruba Egungun Festival, Ilara, Nigeria, July 22, 1982,
EEPA 2012-004-0622

Houlberg’s research gradually became more entrenched in Haitian subjects. Ironically, with the scapegoating of Haitians (among the other “H” groups of homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and heroin users) for the spread of HIV in the early 1980s, Houlberg was traveling more and more to the country. As the tourism boom from the 1970s came to a halt and, later, political turmoil engulfed the country as uprisings overthrew the autocratic government Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Houlberg’s work in Haiti was ramping up. In fact, her field notes serve as valuable contemporaneous accounts of the shifts in Vodou practice and how devotees responded to these difficulties, as well as how the material changes manifested in the work of Haitian artists in Port-au-Prince.

Two ounsi (Vodou initiates) hold up sequined banners to conceal the activities of the oungan behind them,
Haiti, December 1985, EEPA 2012-004-0819

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. 

Bel-Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, St. Martin's street (next street from Tirremas), Haiti, January 1986,
EEPA 2012-004-0810. Houlberg made close associations with flag makers in Bel-Air, an epicenter of art
and Vodou practice in Haiti's capital.  

In 1994, President Bill Clinton ordered the U.S. Marine invasion to reinstate the democratically elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which also restored international trade to the country. This marked a time of great optimism in Haiti. For her part, Houlberg was busy with her work as the co-curator of the landmark exhibition, Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, which began at UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History (now named the Fowler Museum at UCLA) in 1995 and spent three years traveling to major institutions throughout North America. As the editor of the massive exhibition book, fellow curator Donald J. Cosentino has often received the lion’s share of the credit for Sacred Arts, but Houlberg’s field notes reveal just how integral she was to its success. Her art-world connections in Haiti, cultivated over years of research, proved crucial to the exhibition and the publication. Her relationships to artists like Telemak and the painter Andre Pierre – a grand elder of Haitian Vodou practice – as well as her longtime collaborator and friend, Georges René, whose tireless legwork opened myriad doors to Houlberg that were otherwise unavailable to her, were significant resources to the exhibition.

Houlberg's longtime collaborator and friend, Georges René, standing in front of a billboard that reads, "ANSAM NAP REBATI AYITI-MEN ANPIL CHAY PA LOU (together we will rebuild Haiti - many hands lighten the load), Haiti, circa 1990, EEPA 2012-004-0607.  This is one of many signs and posters to advertise Haitian resilience that Houlberg caught with her camera during the turbulent years that followed the fall of "Baby Doc" Duvalier in the mid-1980s. 

Houlberg died in 2012, leaving behind troves of material to the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives. Most of the photographs and field notes have been processed, but there still remains much of the video and audio components of Houlberg’s fieldwork to be digitized. Considering the breadth and scope of the available materials, we highly anticipate what the next phases of archiving will yield.

Cosentino, Donald, Henry John Drewal, Katherine Smith, and Doran H. Ross. “Marilyn Jensen Houlberg.” African Arts 46, no. 2 (2013): 4–5. 

Houlberg, Marilyn Hammersley. “Social Hair: Tradition and Change in Yoruba Hairstyles in Southwestern Nigeria,” in The Fabrics of Culture: The Anthropology of Clothing and Adornment. Justine M. Corwell and Ronald A. Schwarz, eds.  World Anthropology. The Hague ; New York: Mouton, 1979. 349-398.
———. “Ibeji Images of the Yoruba.” African Arts 7, no. 1 (1973): 20–92. 

We hope that you enjoy Houlberg’s photographs as more are posted online.  You can view the collections’ finding aids and explore her photographs here:

Marilyn Houlberg Nigeria collections: EEPA 2005-002 and EEPA 2015-015 
Marilyn Houlberg Haiti collections: EEPA 2012-004 and EEPA 2015-016 

We encourage you to read more about the Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa project and explore other blogs in the series.
To obtain high-resolution images, permission for publication or exhibition, or make a research appointment, please contact the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art.

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