artNotes from Hyde House: Another black Madonna

Danto, another black Madonna—solid and dark—appeared out of the pages of “All Souls’ Rising” written by Madison Smartt Bell.

I had first encountered Bell’s writing in a New Yorker short story which inspired my desire to read his entire œuvre. At the time of my discovering his fiction, life was in flux. I was leaving Brooklyn and returning to Arkansas to see my parents through their end times. With their passing I moved to the way-back of the Ozark Highlands to spend four solitary years in the wilderness.

Remotely settled along the Little Buffalo River, I read Bell’s first installment of his epic Haitian trilogy. As reviewed on Amazon, “All Souls Rising” recounts that the “slave uprising in Haiti was a momentous contribution to the tide of revolution that swept over the Western world at the end of the 1700s. A brutal rebellion that strove to overturn a vicious system of slavery, the uprising successfully transformed Haiti from a European colony to the world’s first Black republic…Pulsing with brilliant detail, ‘All Soul’s Rising’ provides a visceral sense of the pain, terror, confusion and triumph of revolution.”

The slaves stolen from their African homelands were packed into the bowels of cargo ships and carried across the Middle Passage. Bell graphically describes how having lost everything—their homes, their families, their status, their languages and their spiritual practices—the enslaved people came together through their shared language of drumming: he tells how out of their clandestine gatherings Vodou, their new, synthesized spirituality, was born calling in an entire pantheon of lwa (spirits) that guided the enslaved.


Bell identified by name the Vodou spirits that brought courage and succor and the will to rebel.   When those very Vodou spirits began to appear in my night time wilderness dreams, I felt compelled to know them better. So began my quest to learn all I could about Vodou which led to my making a collection of paintings and subsequent exhibitions titled “Les Morts et Les Mystères: The Ancestors and the Spirits” among whom the lwa Danto appears.

Danto is commonly associated with the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, the patron saint of Poland. Among Haitians the original association of Danto with this Catholic icon of the Mother Mary is hypothesized to be from copies of the icon brought to Haiti by Polish soldiers.       

In Haitian spirituality Danto is understood as the hardworking mother-warrior spirit known for her fierce protectiveness. Her child is said to be a daughter, Anaïs. Danto is associated with tough, country ways. She is credited for the initiation of the 1791 slave revolt begun with the slaughter of a black pig on a feast day in her honor. Danto, the Mother figure associated with Mary, gave inspiration with her fierce, protective presence!

 “When I find myself in times of trouble,” the Beatles poignantly sing…”Mother Mary comes to me speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me speaking words of wisdom, let it be. Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. Whisper words of wisdom, let it be. And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be. For though they may be parted, there is still a chance that they will see. There will be an answer, let it be…”

While we are waiting for health and peace and well-being to come to our community and our country, remember to look to your sources of strength and comfort and to always look to art to soothe and inspire your heart. Visit artCentral’s free drive/walk-through exhibition at 1110 East Thirteenth Street in Carthage. You will be uplifted by JASON SHELFER/SCULPTURAL SPECTACULAR on the beautiful tree-canopied Hyde House lawn.