I’ll be the first to admit it, my total “experience” with voodoo involves not much more than occasional trips to my local botanica to refresh my incense supply, and subsequently stressing about my decision to go with the “Fast Luck Egyptian Money Drawing” candle (*alleged) over the Reverse Action Evil Eye one (*also alleged). Which is to say, I have exactly no actual experience. I’m totally gonna let the lovely Haitian shop owners dress my devotional candle of choice with what looks like confetti and smells like potpourri, because why not? In my understanding, it’s best to cover all your bases on the warpath to riches, and I’ll take any and all of the help that the Supernatural Powers That Be, whoever they may be, are willing to give me.
On the other hand, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge– the industrial music pioneer of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV– has gone to much greater lengths to understand Vodun, the West African religion that’s thought to be the progenitor of voodoo.
Genesis’s exhibition, Try To Altar Everything (at the Rubin Museum through August 1), features a wide variety of visual artwork, including h/er well known “cutups” as well as the leather chair that once belonged to Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, Genesis’s life partner, soulmate, and literal other half. In their “Pandrogyne Project“, the duo famously used every tool at their disposal– magical, spiritual, emotional, even surgical– to become one another’s replica.
Since Genesis’s art and way of life are so inextricably intertwined, it’s only appropriate that the museum has hosted an extensive schedule of events featuring Genesis in the flesh. At the same time, s/he is making appearances all over Brooklyn– at Trans-Pecos, Sunnyvale. It’s almost as if there are two of h/er. Heh.
Last week, the Rubin hosted the world premiere of Bight of the Twin, directed by Hazel Hill McCarthy III, an LA-based artist and filmmaker who’s close friends with Genesis. The documentary offers not just a recent window into Genesis’s life, but a very raw portrayal of Genesis at h/er most vulnerable. It shows just how far s/he’s willing to go in order to cope with the loss of Lady Jaye who died suddenly in 2007, “in the arms of her heartbroken ‘other half.'”
The film follows Genesis on h/er 2014 journey to Ouidah, Benin, where many people practice Vodun, a set of animistic beliefs and ancestral worship. Devotional practices honor voduns, or powerful deities that are believed to control everyday occurrences and influence various life-marking events. This was pretty much all Genesis and Hazel knew about the place before they took off on what the filmmaker described as a casual “exploration” of Ouidah.
Their curiosity was piqued by a 2012 photo essay in the The Guardian that spotlighted Benin’s annual “voodoo festival.” The images are eye-tingling ones and even a little mind-boggling for the uninitiated– people are decked out in bedazzled costumes made from an array of neon and jewel-toned fabrics. The outfits are formed into occasionally stiff, intensely geometric figures, while bizarrely ornate sheaths cover the dancers’ bodies and conceal their faces, even their eyes. Other participants are squished into densely speckled robes shaped like decapitated jack-in-the-boxes and unusually flexible pill boxes. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if there’s even a person under all that decor.
“Wow— they’re like Leigh Bowery on DMT,” Genesis remarked to Hazel. There’s little contextual information included in the photo essay, but nevertheless the friends decided, on a whim, that it was a good idea to take a trip to the West African country.
Once the pair arrived in Benin, things unfolded very quickly– as Hazel recalled, it was just a matter of days before they were at the center of a “serendipitous discovery of twinning.” They didn’t know it at the time, but Benin, and the city of Ouidah in particular, is home to one of the highest twin birthrates in the world.
“We both could have changed our faces to look like some kind of ideal, but we wanted to look like each other,” Jaye said at one point. “We’re trying to meet in the middle.”
Genesis has the ability to explain the rather painful situation matter-of-factly. “My body represents us both in this material world, and s/he represents us both elsewhere,” s/he said in a 2014 NPR interview. “And then, hopefully, one day we will be we again, somewhere else.” Throughout the documentary, Genesis describes Jaye’s passing not as death or a departure, but by simply saying that h/er wife has “dropped h/er body,” and has repeatedly expressed her belief that Jaye’s spiritual being is alive and well somewhere else. “S/he’s still as much a part of me as before,” Genesis explains in Bight of the Twin. And yet, there’s a lingering sense throughout the film that something about her death is not quite settled.
It becomes clear in the doc, which was shot in 2014 across two separate trips, that Genesis was still searching for some sort of guarantee that s/he and Lady Jaye would meet again in some other place (um, just whatever you do, don’t call it “heaven”). Even now, Hazel told me, “Gen’s really post-traumatic from dealing with the loss of Jaye.”
We’re first introduced to Genesis through a swirling collage of Throbbing Gristle imagery and flashes of h/er work over the years. All of it just seems to be leading to one moment: meeting Jacqueline Breyer (aka Lade Jaye) for the first time in 1993. Genesis recalls how s/he knew immediately, unequivocally, this was the person s/he wanted to be with forever. Their courtship was a surprisingly slow one, since the two felt they had all the time in the world to get to know each other, according to Genesis’s account (however the two were married the same year they met). As a longtime practitioner of magic with a strong interest in the occult, Genesis found that s/he and Jaye had strikingly similar spiritual interests.
“Jaye was already a devotee of Oshun,” Genesis explains, referring to the Santerían demigod of love and sensuality who often draws comparisons to Venus. (Santería is another African-Diaspora descendent of Vodun and other West African religious practices.) Together, they went “deeper and deeper” into Santerían practices.
After the death of Jaye, Genesis guides the camera around h/er Brooklyn apartment, sharing h/er various talismans and offering vague descriptions of h/er devotional practices. S/he spends a few moments speaking about snakes and their particularly polarizing symbolism. “Why are snakes either revered or reviled?” s/he asks, somewhat presciently. At one point, Genesis picks up what appears to be a pint of Jim Beam and, after tipping it back into h/er mouth, spits a mouthful of the stuff at one of the idols. There’s a stark contrast between the white walls of h/er newish apartment, the whirr of a nearby air conditioner, and all of these voodoo-esque statues and special amulets, that really makes the whole thing seem very distant.
As quickly as the scene darkens, we find Genesis winding h/er way through an open-air market in Benin. The objects for sale– animal parts, a jar of scarlet feathers, and various dried nuts and legumes– are dusty, but familiar, like realer versions of what you can find for sale right here in Brooklyn. People are friendly and some offer explanations in English, seemingly used to seeing tourists around. For a long time, Benin was closed to outsiders, as the brutal dictatorship that found its legitimacy ostensibly in Marxism-Leninism wasn’t keen on visitors. During this time, indigenous religious practices such as Vodun were suppressed by the government, and it wasn’t until the early ’90s when Benin’s rulers relaxed their policies and moved toward political pluralism that tourists became a regular thing and Vodun was once again left to flourish. By 1992 (as this New York Times piece makes clear), open-air vendors like the ones seen in the documentary were well-versed in hawking their items to lolling Westerners. So far, Genesis’s trip feels like any old touristy experience in an unfamiliar place.
Throughout the film, there’s little discussion of historical or political context. Though, how that plays out for you depends on whether you’re willing to do some research of your own afterwards. Or maybe you’re already a scholarly authority on Benin– who knows? It’s not that my personal ignorance about Benin’s culture got in the way of enjoying the film, but I did need to do a little digging in order to identify various confusing terms that immediately struck me as homographs. Even something as rudimentary as the word “bight” in the film’s title might lead to some pause– actually, “bight” refers to the curving coastal region extending from Ghana to Nigeria with Benin in between. Nicknamed the “Slave Coast” toward the end of the 1600s, the region was home to a number of important port cities that were major exit points for the brutal slave trade. In fact, historians estimate that around 3 million people were transported from the Slave Coast to the Americas and Europe after being traded for goods like tobacco and textiles.
Hazel told me that she wasn’t that interested in making a “direct documentary,” and instead aimed to “capture a moment in time.” The film is definitely more poetic, a form a “undulating storytelling” that feels linear only because we’re guided along by several demarcations in the form of chapters with explicit names like “The Twin Fetish Initiation.” Genesis’s superb storytelling ability also helps situate the viewer in terms of h/er experience. It’s maybe for the best that both the filmmaker and Genesis resist the urge to pontificate too much about a culture and religion they know little about. Genesis told the audience at the Rubin that their trip “felt like ages”– but even that wouldn’t be enough time to get all pedagogical about Benin and Vodun (even most of the books I found on the subject were vague, Orientalist, outdated, and/or based on very little evidence and experience).
Generally, the filmmakers chose to be respectful of a culture very different from their own, and succeeded in visualizing what it was like for the friends to soak up such an unfamiliar experience like they were free-floating sponges. They were open and understanding rather than overly analytical and judgmental, and made their status as outsiders who were unfamiliar with the culture’s nuances resoundingly clear (however, it should be noted that being able to drop in and “explore” at whim implies a privileged status in the first place).
As it happened, Hazel and Genesis really did go with the flow. When their initial rooming plan fell through, they left the decision of lodging up to their initial host’s friends-of-a-friend network. “That all happened two weeks before we were about to leave,” Hazel recalled. “And you can’t really just AirBnB Ouidah.”
The filmmaker admitted that she and Genesis were a little apprehensive at first. “It’s all that Western fear, in a way, of– ‘What could happen?’ But at the same time we’ve made this risk because there’s no other way to explore anything. If there’s no risk, what’s the worth? There’s no drive,” she recalled.
Upon arrival, a few “coincidences” allowed the pair a very high level of access that would make any reporter who’s tried to quickly gain the trust of strangers in a foreign country extremely jealous. Their host happened to be friends with the son of a Vodun master of ceremonies known as Da, the Head of Pythons. “So very quickly we were taken into this very intimate experience, on the family-level, of discovering Vodun,” Hazel explained. “Genesis called it the ‘of-course’ factor— of course we end up meeting the son of Vodun’s Head of Pythons, and of course we end up getting this special access that no one’s really had.”
But it was another coincidence that opened the door to Genesis’s involvement in a special ceremony. “Da recognized through Genesis’s tattoos and the pendant that s/he wears of Jaye, that Genesis had lost a twin,” Hazel said. The two were also introduced to a deity thought to be the most powerful vodun, Mawu-Lisa. The Voodoo Encyclopedia characterizes Mawu-Lisa as a “divine couple,” a dual-bodied deity made up of two personas– female and male, respectively. There are a variety of interpretations for Mawu-Lisa’s significance, but generally she’s thought to have created the universe and humanity– no big deal.
But the twin symbolism doesn’t stop there. The visitors find that living, actual-human twins are revered in Ouidah, and the same is true even after death. The pair begin to notice the little clay dolls, often dressed and polished to perfection, all around them. “Twins were everywhere, it was so ubiquitous to the area– everywhere you look around, there’s another twin, little kids coming up to you— another twin, this mom just had twins,” Hazel said. “You’re just seeing so many multiples that after a while, your head kind of spins.”
It turns out that many people adhere to a sort of “cult of twins,” and the dolls act as effigies, representing a deceased twin. The surviving twin or next of kin carries the effigy (or effigies, in some cases) around with them– caring for them, washing them, and generally pampering these objects as if they were the actual twin, just a little less capable now. As we find out in the doc, you can’t simply buy one of these babies at the nearest Walmart.
Da invites Genesis to participate in a ceremony in which s/he will be “initiated into the twin fetish,” a reference to activating the effigy. “This all happened on the second day that we were there,” Hazel explained. Even years after completing the shoot, she still seemed shocked at their swift turnaround from tourists to participants.
In the film, Genesis is guided by Da and some of his assistants into a space dedicated solely to the Python vodun. Genesis looks nervous, but also hopeful in a way as Da guides h/er through a series of instructions that seem rather arbitrary at first: put your mouth on the ground, cross your arms, kiss the doll. At the center of the ceremony is a strange form, a physical stand-in for the vodun where the devotional movements are directed. Da splashes a clear alcohol of some sort over the mound– it’s far from the icons and polished statues of any Judeo-Christian practices I’ve ever seen. Instead, it’s a constantly evolving mass of recently expired material– blood, feathers, clay, beads, and plant matter– that seems to have a life of its own. It’s just as shiny as it is dull, hideous as it is oddly beautiful, not unlike actual living things.
“Six years [of] grieving Jaye,” Genesis says to h/erself. “Now to reconnect.”
Da takes two chickens and handles them with a sort of practiced care, knowing exactly how to touch and subdue them in preparation for ritual sacrifice. After tossing some booze down their throats and stroking them gently, and ordering the unruliest chickens to calm down, their throats are sliced open and Da pours the stream of blood all over the sacred mound.
At the end of the initiation, Genesis is smiling, clinking glasses with Da and, as instructed, throwing back shots. We’re not told explicitly in the film what’s just transpired, but it seems pretty clear from the mood. “S/he reconnected with Jaye’s soul through this tiny doll,” Hazel explained. “It wasn’t that they were performing for us, we were a part of it. I think our experience would have been much different if we were just watching a chicken getting killed, or someone just dancing for us— you know?”
After the ceremony, Genesis goes to a fabric seller and selects a purple and pink pattern. The scene switches, and suddenly you realize s/he’s having matching outfits made for h/er and Jaye’s effigy. It’s a quiet, heartbreaking moment and it kind of made me want to rip my eyes out afterwards.
But things are on the up shortly after. Toward the end of the film, we find Genesis at a celebratory event– the annual festival of twins. Identical twins of all shapes and sizes, from little girls to men in matching outfits, take part in the festival and perform synchronized dances to wild drum beats. “It’s a two day ceremony– the first one is to honor the twins who have died, so all those little dolls are there,” Hazel recalled. “And the second day is the living twin festival, so all the living twins they come with their dolls, and you just see this gargantuan group of twins and they really do it up because they have matching outfits, matching patterns, and it really is psychedelic in a strange way. You can’t believe it, you know?”
The strange parallels are maybe not so strange for Genesis, seeing as s/he seems to be sort of a magical magnet for all kinds of supernatural karmic unfoldings, as we learned when we spoke with h/er back in February. In anticipation of the show’s opening date, Genesis recounted for B+B how Nepal came to be an integral part of h/er being. It’s a complicated story, and one that honestly you’ll just have to read for yourself, but basically Genesis relied on the path that unfolded before h/er, and it turned out for the best.
“We really miss Ouidah, we miss it every day,” s/he says at the end of the film. “We feel as though we are changed– ‘CHANGED’ with capital letters.”
After the film, Genesis and Hazel both appeared in-person for a short discussion. They both seemed profoundly moved by their experiences, even a little rattled by the film’s premiere, and almost reluctant to answer too many specific questions posed by the audience. I noticed a small leather pouch strung around Genesis’s neck– it contained Jaye’s effigy. An uncomfortable smile flickered across h/er face as s/he tried to make sense of what had happened for a room full of people at a sleek museum that must have seemed lightyears away from h/er time in Benin.
Nevertheless, both Hazel and Genesis offered some advice to the audience. “This project really solidified this idea for me: the only way that you can try to understand your world, your perception, is to go out and do it,” Hazel said.
Genesis interjected–”See the cliff, jump off, go and find out.”
A woman toward the back tried to pose a question to Genesis, but it was unclear through her rambling what exactly she was trying to say other than sort of offensively comparing Vodun to Catholicism (“[Vodun] is 10,000 years old,” Genesis pointed out. “So which came first– was it the dead chicken or the egg?”) and insinuating that these rituals were maybe unnecessary in a Western context. Genesis sighed and recalled a scene from the festival of twins.
“A woman approached a group of hundreds of these little dolls and she picked up 11 of them, one by one– and I turned to Hazel and said, ‘Is she stealing them?’ because she was taking so many. And Hazel went, ‘No,'” Genesis recalled.
The friends realized that the woman had actually lost 11 babies. “To me–that’s about humanity,” Genesis continued. “This woman has found a way to not feel guilt or shame or tragedy about losing 11 babies. She celebrates them every day. She dresses them. She’s still includes their lives, these twins, these triplets, as part of the family. All the way through, they’re included.”
All of this reflected not just on the benefits of travel and why the film acts as an ambient quest as opposed to an informative documentary about Benin, but also why the whole thing was so meaningful for Genesis. “Learning is why we travel, learning is why you listen,” s/he said. “Love can have so many layers.”