Midnight at the Crossroads • Cristina de Middel • Magnum Photos

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Midnight at the Crossroads

As Cristina de Middel and Bruno Morais’s collaborative project goes on show at Arles, the Magnum nominee discusses how the work redefines clichéd representations of African spirituality

Cristina de Middel

Cristina de Middel The dynamic energy of Exu and his ambiguous character are described in various songs and legends. Exu uses many tricks to confuse the people around him in order to generate conflict and suspicion. (...)

Èsù is a presence, referenced frequently in African spirituality, which fulfills the role of divine messenger, a force or power that acts as a translator between the language of humans and that of deities. Harnessing the symbolism of Èsù, which is said to control life’s movement, Cristina de Middel and her husband and collaborator, the artist Bruno Morais, explored the roots and representation of African spirituality through four strategic shores: Benin, Cuba, Brazil, and Haiti.

Cristina de Middel A Vodun ceremony to summon the Egungun, spirits of the ancestors. Ouidah, Benin. 2016. From the series "Mindnight at the Crossroads". (Collaboration with Bruno Morais) © Cristina de Middel | Magnum Photos
Cristina de Middel A Legba (Eshu) totem in Dahomey. Dahomey, Benin. 2016. "Mindnight at the Crossroads". (Collaboration with Bruno Morais) © Cristina de Middel | Magnum Photos

Middel’s practice consciously aims to challenge clichés; her Gentleman’s Cub work seeks to redress the balance of the depiction of women in sex work in visual culture by focusing on male clients. “If an alien came to earth and googled ‘prostitute’, they would think it is about women, wearing underwear alone in dirty rooms,” says Middel, of the typical way sex work is visually represented in the media. Midnight at the Crossroads seeks to fill in similar gaps in the photographic lexicon with regards to the way African spiritual culture is represented. Middel and Morais have developed a project that reads like a film narrative rather than traditional documentary, that seeks to follow the spirit of Èsù, and in doing so create photography that reimagines the way African-rooted religions are generally represented. Here, Middel discusses the project and how it fits into her practice.

Cristina de Middel The Egungun are the spirits of the ancestors. They come back to the living world after a night long ceremony and wonder the streets giving advice to those who dare getting close to them. Ouidah, Be (...)

Why did you feel that this story had to be told? 

I think the Western understanding of African-rooted religions is reduced to a couple of clichés that came from Hollywood and were presented by missionaries in the beginning. On one side African-rooted religions are profoundly linked to nature and environment and understand the forces of nature as deities, which makes them much more respectful compared to Semitic religions, where humans seem to operate at a superior level than the rest of living creatures. It is also an intangible cultural patrimony that is slowly disappearing as a consequence of the advance of Protestantism in South America, the Caribbean and Africa. On top of that it is the beauty of narratives and the ceremonies that makes it especially interesting for us – Bruno Morais and me.

Cristina de Middel Legba (Eshu) starting his journey to America from the beaches of Ouidah. Benin. 2016. "Mindnight at the Crossroads". (Collaboration with Bruno Morais) © Cristina de Middel | Magnum Photos

"I think the Western understanding of African-rooted religions is reduced to a couple of clichés that came from Hollywood and were presented by missionaries in the beginning. "

- Cristina de Middel
Cristina de Middel Elegguà arrives at the macumbas of Rio de Janeiro as EXU, and takes the shape Seu Zé Pilintra one of the icons of the Carioca soul. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 2016. "Midnight at the Crossroads". (Coll (...)
Cristina de Middel Exu takes many different shapes, both woman and men. Here a Pomba Gira, the feminine representation of Exu in the Umbanda temples. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 2016. "Midnight at the Crossroads". (Colla (...)

What is the significance of the Èsù?

Èsù is the force of chaos. He is one of the main deities in West African religions and he is in charge of the communication between humans and the rest of the gods (Orishas). He is also the lord of the crossroads and will put obstacles in your way to make you question your certainties and take control of your life. He is a quite enigmatic deity and has many different facets which makes him very difficult to define in a simple way. However, you can find this spirit along the slave trade route taking different shapes and qualities that respond to the specific needs of the new territory.

Cristina de Middel The representation of Exú Sete Porteiras brings traces of the Greek satyrs with both devilish and playful qualities. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. From the series "Midnight at the Crossroads". (Collabora (...)

How do you explore his existence and his role in the work?

We decided to mix straight documentary of the different ceremonies in Benin, Cuba, Brazil and Haiti, and combine the result with visual illustrations of the myths and legends that make him more accessible to everyone. We also took a specific route, where his transformation is more lineal. For instance, in Benin he has no human form, he is a totem. Then in Cuba he is represented as a child that plays tricks on you to confuse you. When he arrives in Brazil he is a seductive bohemian man and only in Haiti does he become an old and wise man.

Cristina de Middel One of the most famous legends of Esù explains why we all have lines in our hands. Matanzas, Cuba. 2015. From the series "Midnight at the Crossroads". (Collaboration with Bruno Morais) © Cristina de Middel | Magnum Photos
Cristina de Middel Exu is many times understood as a devil or a joker with playful and annoying interventions. In Brazil, his characterization with a young bohemian man has become a symbol of the city of Rio de Janei (...)
Cristina de Middel A Santería ceremony in Matanzas, one of the most openly religious cities in Cuba. Matanzas, Cuba. 2015. From the series "Midnight at the Crossroads". (Collaboration with Bruno Morais) © Cristina de Middel | Magnum Photos
Cristina de Middel Esù ceremony in the outskirts of Havana. Havana, Cuba. 2018. From the series "Midnight at the Crossroads". (Collaboration with Bruno Morais) © Cristina de Middel | Magnum Photos

"It is really a shame that popular culture reduces Voodoo to zombies and human sacrifice."

- Cristina de Middel

You have spoken about how you are attempting to fill in gaps, or to explain things to yourself that you don’t think have been properly explained. What gap or lack of explanation does this project seek to address? 

African-rooted religions suffered from the simplification and demonization that missionaries and colonialists imposed. We are still suffering from that and actually missing an incredibly rich source of spirituality and inspiration. It is really a shame that popular culture reduces Voodoo to zombies and human sacrifice. It is really much more complex than that and it is a beautiful complexity from which I believe we could all learn.

Cristina de Middel Tying strands of palm oil on your toes and pulling your feet off the floor at 12am will keep the bad luck away. Havana, Cuba. 2018. From the series "Midnight at the Crossroads". (Collaboration with (...)
Cristina de Middel Legba (Eshu) arrives in the coast of Cuba as Elegguá. Bahía Cochinos, Cuba. 2015. From the series "Midnight at the Crossroads". (Collaboration with Bruno Morais.) © Cristina de Middel | Magnum Photos

You have spoken about how beauty was an important element of this project–why is it so important and how did you go about creating it in the work?

One of the main goals we had was providing beautiful images that could help i building this magical understanding of the religion. We avoided situations and circumstances that could somehow feed the primitive cliché and focused on the beauty of the narrative and the magic of the link that is created between the Orishas and their congregation. There are also many questions that arise which are very relevant in modern Western societies, like the psychology of faith, the embracing of science as the unique provider of answers to impossible questions, etcetera. African-rooted religions and Ifá specifically present a cosmogony that could eventually be of good use in confronting our “modern psychological diseases”.

Cristina de Middel Gonaïves, Haiti. 2018. From the series "Midnight at the Crossroads". (Collaboration with Bruno Morais) © Cristina de Middel | Magnum Photos

How does the collaborative process between yourself and Bruno work?

Bruno and I basically do the research together, we produce together and shoot together. It is quite an easy and communicative process that has been delightful. We both shoot at the same time and then edit together forgetting about who shot what…we just focus on the story we want to tell and use the images we´ve generated as words in our sentences.

You are constantly travelling. How much does this aspect of your lifestyle influence your choices in following a story over long distances, often spanning several countries?

I think travelling is fundamental in my practice. I love being confronted by situations I do not understand, because that triggers my creative process. Sometimes the country is an excuse to take photographs and sometimes photography is an excuse to visit a country. It works in both ways. I always travelled a lot and love this ‘explorer´s’ mode but I do not need to travel very far away. I can totally reproduce that in my neighborhood, so it is more an attitude and a strategy. Also, I am not a huge fan of borders and customs and my stories try to ignore the political geography and focus on the cultural one.

Cristina de Middel Twins in Haiti are called Marassa and are also considered as specially blessed and providers of good luck. Jacmel, Haiti. 2018. From the series "Midnight at the Crossroads". (Collaboration with Bru (...)
Cristina de Middel A Voodoo ceremony in the temple of Sainte Anne in Goinaïves. Gonaïves, Haiti. 2018. From the series "Midnight at the Crossroads". (Collaboration with Bruno Morais) © Cristina de Middel | Magnum Photos

Exhibition details

Cristina de Middel & Bruno Morais: Midnight at the Crossroads
Exhibition venue: Croisière
Dates: 2 July – 23 September
Opening hours: 10h00 – 19h30
Ticket: 14 Euros

More info here.

Cristina de Middel Eshu takes the shape of an old and wise man in Haiti. His name is Papa Legba and he has a white beard and smoles a pipe. Port au Prince, Haiti. 2018. From the series "Midnight at the Crossroads". ( (...)
Cristina de Middel One of the most popular legends about Eshu confuses two friends around the color of the hat that eshu is wearing in a tricky way in front of them. Jacmel, Haiti. 2018. From the series "Midnight at (...)