Saturday, 3 November 2012

Nastassja Kinski - voodoo meme

Last week I went to an excellent lecture given by the UK photographer and film maker Leah Gordon at the Nottingham Contemporary art gallery. She spoke eloquently about her experiences during her many trips to Haiti to study and document the voodoo practices of the island's inhabitants.

Her talk was illustrated by a great collection of photographs she had taken over the years. There was one image of a voodoo shrine which showed, amongst the clutter, a poster-print of a woman lying on her side entwined with a snake. This poster, it transpires, has become a meme in Haiti. Copies are often found in shrines dedicated to the 'loa' Aido Quedo, who is associated with serpents (and is sometimes called 'The Rainbow Serpent').

The poster is, in fact, a photograph taken in 1981 of the actress Nastassja Kinski (Klaus' daughter) by the late Richard Avedon. The image was popular in the 80s (and may have been used as a film poster at some point, but I can't find any evidence of this). Copies are not uncommon and there is a lot on the Christies action site for an original print which sold for $74,500.

I am enthralled by the way the image has become a meme and now has associations quite divorced from its original intention. It came to prominence through modern marketing and as a consequence of its successful distribution it has now been appropriated by a radically different audience for private veneration. Avedon was exploring the associations of the serpent in Western culture as the entity that corrupts Eve, but his image has been re-appropriated by another religion to mean something entirely different.

William Gibson would be proud.


  1. Thank you for this example of the migration of meaning, of the street finding its own use for things..
    meanwhile in other cultural universes, it is the designer of the ivory bracelet, or whether it is a Burmese python or whether it was shot in NY or New Orleans, or what camera settings were used, and and and, that are the primary context markers of meaning...