This story originally appeared in the March 1991 issue of ELLE DECOR. For more stories from our archive, subscribe to ELLE DECOR All Access.
Step into Geoffrey Holder’s spacious loft on lower Broadway in Manhattan, and you have entered a great storehouse of the human soul. Facing you at every turn are the icons of raw and powerful spirituality: African puppets and masks together with images of Haitian gods of love and war, crucified Christs, and angels.
Many of these strange and beautiful paintings and sculptures will look disturbingly unfamiliar. They come largely from outside the traditions of the Western European art in which most of us are schooled. They are made instead by African tribesmen, Haitian voodoo priests, and visionary American preachers. Most of these works reveal an indifference to the formalities of correct anatomy or perspective, and dwell on the mysteries of religion, sexuality, and death. They are evidence of Holder’s fascination with the deepest secrets of the human spirit.
For many people today, Geoffrey Holder is perhaps best known for the Clio Award–winning commercials he made some years ago for 7UP. But more important, he is a dancer, choreographer, actor, director, and painter—as well as a collector. He hails from Trinidad, where he was born into a family wise enough to foster all his creative passions. By his early 20s he had his own dance company, which was invited to represent Trinidad at the Caribbean Festival of the Arts in Puerto Rico in 1952. There he encountered a company from Haiti and discovered the traditions of Haitian popular music, dance, and religion. Most powerful for him were the African-derived beliefs of the religion known as vodun or voodoo.
“I went crazy,” Holder says. “Those were my gods. It opened my head on religion.” The power of this revelations stayed with him always. He danced the role of Baron Samedi, the voodoo graveyard deity, in Truman Capote’s House of Flowers. He choreographed the part of the Baron again in a ballet he created for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. And he played him in the film Live and Let Die. More recently, Holder has done the costumes and choreography for the current revival tour of House of Flowers, featuring Patti LaBelle and Holder’s wife, dancer Carmen de Lavallade. “Baron Samedi may be my patron saint,” Holder says. “He is life, he is death, he is magic, he is king of the clowns, he is mischief. He is in everybody’s mythology.”
Holder—with the enthusiastic support of his wife—began collecting in the mid 1950s in New York. To this day, he can’t exactly say why he collects. “I don’t know. I’m a hoarder. I’m Leo, king of the beasts. I must own things because I am trying to create my own mythology. My mythology is a mixture of everybody’s mythology. I am a blend of cultures.”
“I must own things because I am trying to create my own mythology.”
His first purchase was a mechanical figure of a gaunt Black man in a top hat and tails that reminded him of Baron Samedi. “I found him in a shop between Madison and Park in the ’50s, and paid for him with my unemployment check,” Holder recalls. “And when I bought him I was a little scared because he has his own magic power—you know, when you look at a doll too long the eyes just turn. He began to rule my house.”
Soon after he came across a figure of the Virgin Mary in an antiques shop on Third Avenue. “That was the beginning of my collection.”
Then the floodgates opened. Holder sought out the offbeat, the untutored, and the visionary. This month, all the drama and humor of Holder’s collection is on exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in Westchester County, New York—a feast for the eyes, but also for the heart. Visitors to the exhibition, which runs through May 5, or readers of the catalogue Spirits: Selections from the Collection of Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade, will recognize something of both the spirit of Geoffrey Holder and the soul of mankind.