Looking Backwards and Moving Forward (and a Visit to a Vodun Art Exhibit)

Vodun Art Exhibit
“Sans titre (tête) “ 2022, oil and acrylic on canvas. Jeremy Demester. Zinsou Foundation, Ouidah, Benin.

“Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinangalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.”

This Filipino idiom, usually attributed to José Rizal, shares a universal truth: in order to know where your destination is, you have to understand where you’ve come from. For centuries, many cultures around the world have embraced this way of life.

When I lived in Benin, I learned about the Fa oracle used in the Vodun (voodoo) and Yoruba religions. Throughout Fon and Yoruba kingdoms, practitioners of the Fa would consult with the ancestors and spirits for wisdom on a variety of matters. Essentially, they were looking back into the past to understand what would happen in the future.

Today, Vodun is far from being an outdated tradition confined to museum paintings and archives. It’s a very real way of life. You can see and hear shimmers of it on any given day in the marketplace, in touristic sites, in performances. Especially during the festival in January, I witnessed how those who practice Vodun embody what their ancestors were and are. There’s a darkly beautiful tension between this past-present dichotomy that makes this region so special in my eyes.

I didn’t write about West Africa for a long time for similar reasons that I’ve never written about the Philippines; I don’t want to look back, only forward. At the time, I didn’t understand— but I experienced a complex sense of loss and loneliness while living in these places that still haunts me today. Each time I tried to write, to make sense of why I felt this way, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

But practically speaking, it hurts more not to write. One of the reasons why communities so strongly preserve and remember the past— whether it be joy or loss— is because it enables them and their unique identity to survive. In other words, writing about our experiences isn’t just an act of documenting the past. It’s a tangible act of divination.

It’s no surprise that I ended up in Asia this year. I’ve wanted to come back for a very long time. I might be returning to my points of origin out of order, but that’s okay. A story doesn’t need to be linear to be an interesting one.

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