By Candice Russell
Have you ever noticed how some Haitian artworks crystallize the essence of the Vodou spirits they represent, but also do much more? Such is the case with a stunning small flag by a master of the medium, Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph. “Twins Joined,” measuring 17 inches by 17 1/2 inches, pictures two figures — neither male nor female — joining together with raised hands. Their outer arms become one in an exagerratedly large arch over their heads.
Yes, the flag portrays the Marassa, the divine children of God, known for their mischievous personalities. But symbolically, it is about people coming together, a celebration of union and compromise. It could be an image in an ad for political compromise between U.S. Congressional rivals or a televised public service announcement about marital togetherness.
Joseph, who is perfectly capable of adding gender-specific facial features to his subjects on flags, chose not to do so in “Twins Joined,” with successful results. The figures’ anonymity means one could interpret them as a man and a woman, sisters, a gay romantic couple, or any other combination of humans. The addition of a four-leaf clover design outlined in turquoise has another intended effect of balancing all the elements. The artist repeats the clover design three times. These forms are colorful, abstract, and echo the curvaceous shape of the androgynous twins.
From a Vodou standpoint, the twins in this flag have significance. According to the late painter Andre Pierre, whose subjects on canvas were exclusively Vodou spirits, “The twins guide all spirits.”
In her excellent book “Veve,” Nany Turnier Ferere says the Marassa are known for having “a voracious appetite.” To that end, special meals are organized in their honor. Those who follow the Marassa are constantly eating. These adherents also behave like spoiled children and are easily prone to cry.
Known for his use of luxurious materials like velvet and expensive satin, Joseph is also reputed as a colorist. He is unerring in his combinations, which are striking and unique. This flag uses the “scattered grain” technique, so named and pioneered by fellow flagmaker Clotaire Bazile. By this method, Joseph lets the background cloth (a felt-like material) in a deep sand color become a vital element.
One of the most imaginative flag makers, Joseph is the first person I know of to put domestic felines on flags. These aren’t the cuddly, well-fed versions of cats beloved in other countries, but their arched-back, skinny cousins — symbols of survival in a country where most people scramble for their next meal.
Another animal starring in a Joseph Vodou flag is his version of a deer or antelope with a preposterously long horn. Just like the zebras and elephants in fantasy landscape paintings, this creature doesn’t exist in Haiti.
Though Joseph is an ardent Vodouist whom I have seen vociferously defend his own visions of spirits to non-believers, he isn’t exclusionary when it comes to what he portrays on flags from other religions. In fact, he portrays angels with a fidelity that would make art curators at the Vatican proud. What inspires this flagmaker’s use of Christian iconography can only be suspected. Perhaps he is trying to appeal to the marketplace. Or maybe he is paying homage to Vodou’s incorporation of Christian symbolism in multiple ways. –