Remembering SAIC Professor, Artist, Anthropologist, Haitian Vodou Expert and Rumoured Witch Marilyn Houlberg
African drums echoed through the vast MacLean ballroom, which was bustling with hugs and chatter. Friends, family and colleagues gathered on July 17 to celebrate the life of Marilyn Houlberg — author, artist, art historian, anthropologist and renowned scholar of Nigerian and Haitian art, particularly the arts and culture of Haitian Vodou. Houlberg, who taught at SAIC for over two decades, passed away on June 29 of last year.
A slideshow was projected at the front of the room — black and white images of Houlberg as a child, later in a fluffy 1950s ball gown, and then displaying what seemed a sudden liberation — flowing cloaks, beads, skulls, aviator sunglasses and trips to Nigeria and Haiti. In one photo, she stood proudly in front of a sign that read “Mambo Marilyn’s Studio.” The progression of images made a clear assertion: Houlberg knew who she wanted to be, and that’s who she became.
Houlberg’s daughters Mia and Magda Houlberg mingled among the crowd. At times Magda referred to her mother in the present tense, a fitting sentiment in remembering someone who in life was so attuned to the realm of the dead. “She’s self-made. Her father died when she was young so her family didn’t have a lot of money,” said Magda, noting that her mother had worked through high school to support the family, and made straight A’s at a community college before enrolling at University of Chicago. Magda loved growing up among her mother’s eclectic interests. “She took me places and showed me things that I don’t think anybody has ever seen before,” she said. “She could handle any situation. […] She was able to relate to people on a human level no matter where they came from.”
As an instructor, Houlberg was all about access. She welcomed students into her apartment studio, a loft space covered floor-to-ceiling with Haitian and African art, which artist John T. Unger fondly described in his blog as “Christmas in Hell.” “She was a scholar who was so totally immersed in her subject. She never hid behind books,” said Shay DeGrandis, SAIC Senior Administrative Director of Academic Programs and former student of Houlberg. “She was never afraid to get her hands dirty.” DeGrandis spoke these words from behind skull makeup, dark sunglasses, a top hat and a snappy suit. She was holding a wooden staff with a phallus tip. DeGrandis was dressed as Bawon Samdi (also known as Baron Samedi), one of Houlberg’s favorite Loa, or Haitian Vodou spirits. She was accompanied by friend Michelle Maynard disguised as the Baron’s wife, Maman Brigit. Samedi is the Haitian word for “Saturday,” DeGrandis explained. “Christ dies on Good Friday, Sunday he’s risen, and then you’ve got Saturday. Baron takes care of that realm between the living and the dead. He exists at all times in both. He’s a trickster.”
Muralist and sculptor Oscar Romero met Houlberg over twenty years ago while his wife was a student at SAIC. He and Houlberg shared a unique passion. “We studied the Patoli together — it’s like reading tarot cards from Pre-Columbian culture,” said Romero. He explained how Patoli was traditionally composed as a cross-shaped grid, but that he and Houlberg were designing a version that was a card deck of 52, a significant number in the Mayan calendar. “We were in the middle of the project when Marilyn died. But I will continue and finish it.”