An Essay in Collecting by Candice Russell
During my first trip to Haiti in October of 1985, I traveled to Jacmel and Port-au-Prince on a mission to find good art, which I largely defined as paintings. I visited galleries, met artists like anthropomorphic animal painter Jasmin Joseph in their homes, and discovered that greatness in Haitian art is easily found if you just speak up to the right driver or a simpatico companion over breakfast at a hotel. The last day of that first trip twenty years ago proved particularly fortuitous. Before my flight, I visited the legendary art gallery of the late Issa el-Saieh up the hill from the Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince. Stacked on a table were smallish cloth squares prettily emblazoned with sequins and tiny beads. Not knowing if they were pillow covers or something else, I picked up one and asked the young woman in charge of the gallery, Issa’s girlfriend from California, what it was.
“That’s a voodoo flag,” she said, unable to offer more in the way of explanation.
I bought three of the glittering cloth squares measuring seventeen inches by seventeen inches. My favorite of the three voodoo flags pictured a Christian cross as a tomb enhancement with a smiling skull and crossbones at the base. It seemed as if this was the Haitian way of laughing at death. I didn’t know then that this was a symbolic way of portraying the Guede family of Haitian spirits who govern the fate of the soul after life.
While attracted to the colors and imagery of these flags, I had no idea of their spiritual significance or deep-rootedness within the culture of Haiti and the motherland of Africa. I wondered if they were as casually made as feathered and sequin masks for carnival in New Orleans, the sort of cheerful decoration hung on a wall and removed by the next season.
My interest in voodoo flags grew exponentially as I read what little I could find on the topic and visited religious shops called botanicas owned by Haitians in Miami’s Little Haiti one county south of my home. Further trips to Haiti led to a friendship with Issa el-Saieh, who bought voodoo flags on a regular basis from one of the masters of the medium -- voodoo priest orhoungan Clotaire Bazile. It was Bazile, using the initials C.B. on the front of the flags, who made the first three little flags I had bought from Issa’s gallery. He was also the creator of other flags I bought in bulk, thanks to Issa, who sent large cardboard cartons of them to me at my South Florida home every few months. “Give me back the ones you don’t want when I come to Miami,” Issa wrote to me. But I never returned a single one, choosing instead to keep most of these gorgeous sacred textiles for my collection and sell a few to friends almost as fascinated as I was by their invitingly tactile surfaces.
Other people helped me along the way in amassing my collection, including George Nader, Jr., the son of the owner of what was once Haiti’s largest gallery in downtown Port-au-Prince (now closed with the art transferred to the Nader Museum in the capital’s serene neighborhood of Pacot). Knowing my passion for these textiles, George Nader, Jr. or Ti-George sold me some of my favorite voodoo flags including choice examples by the late Antoine Oleyant, known for his whimsical and imaginative interpretation of the spirits, and my oldest flag by an anonymous maker, a spectacular “St. Jacques Majeur” with a conquering hero on rearing white horse surrounded with hearts and decorated with a red fringe border.
Early collectors of these sacred textiles include Pierre Monosiet, curator of the Musee d’Art Haitien, who began buying vintage voodoo flags in the 1950s, long before foreign tourists got wind of them. Subsequent decades found sharp-eyed American collectors following suit, including Marvin Ross Friedman and his late wife Sheila Natasha Simrod Friedman of Miami, Florida. Another pioneer in this area of collecting was the late Virgil Young of New York City, who supplied many of the fragile flags in the recent U.C.L.A.-sponsored traveling exhibition “The Sacred Art of Haitian Vodou” that visited many U.S. museums. I met Young at the Splendid Hotel in Port-au-Prince in the mid-1980s and he generously took me on a memorable ride to the home of a houngan who pulled a suitcase from under the bed stuffed with exquisite voodoo flags. Heated bargaining ensued between the two men as a deal was struck for Young to purchase his favorite flags.
Despite the academic interest in voodoo throughout the 20th century, I was struck by the paucity of information about voodoo flags in books, even by learned scholar-authors like Milo Rigaud who in “Secrets of Voodoo” (City Lights Books) brilliantly identified the gods and goddesses within the voodoo pantheon portrayed on the flags. What ever nuggets were revealed about them, including a few sentences in the book “Flash of the Spirit” by Robert Farris Thompson, I wanted to know, see and fully understand more. I began with the basics -- this fascinating religion has counterparts in Cuban Santeria and Brazilian Candomble, which grew out of belief systems similarly forged in Africa.
Forcibly brought from Africa as slaves during the 18th century to the western third of the island of Hispaniola, then known as Saint Domingue and now known as Haiti, the people maintained their belief in ancient rites and traditions. After the Spanish took over the country, the French came along with their Roman Catholic priests who tried to substitute Catholicism for African tribal religious practices. What the Catholic priests didn’t anticipate was the cleverness of the enslaved masses ripped from their homeland in West and Central African societies, including the Dahomey, Yoruba and Congo. These people refused to permit the eradication of their heritage, so they went underground with their beliefs. They pretended to go along with what the Catholic priests were teaching, enacting the expected rituals. But the slaves continued to secretly practice what they knew from Africa and found parallels between their ancient gods and the saints of Catholicism -- a cross-referencing that exists in voodoo and voodoo flags today.
Voodoo, originally a word from the African kingdom of Dahomey (now known as Benin) that means spirit or deity, is a religion of accommodation and acceptance. The joke goes that the current population is 90 per cent Catholic, but 100 per cent voodoo, whether the educated elite will admit it or not. Voodoo permeates Haitian life in myriad ways, even for non-believers. Not only a religion, voodoo is also a world view, a way of looking at everything as having a spiritual component to be honored. It is such a powerful force that when Baby Doc Duvalierwas ousted as dictator-for-life in 1986, ending more than two decades of cruel rule by himself and his father, Catholic priests acting under Papal order destroyed voodoo temples and drums in a vain attempt to rout the religion from the masses forever.
When trying to do research for an exhibition of my voodoo flag collection, along with my paintings and steel drum sculptures, at the Fine Arts Museum of the South in Mobile, Alabama in 1988, I struggled to understand the names of the gods and goddesses with various spellings by flag-makers. Even the word voodoo is subject to various spellings including Vodou,Vodoun, and vodun. The explanation for these variations is simple. Reading and writing wasn’t known to legions of Haitians dating back centuries. The stories and songs associated with voodoo were passed down generation to generation orally, rather than in written codified form. Therefore, the goddess of love known as Erzulie can be spelled Erzuli and Erzili, among other ways.
For myself, I prefer the term voodoo, though it has a negative connotation in the United States because of the way it was co-opted by negatively stereotyping B-movies made in Hollywood like “Voodoo Man” (1944) and “Voodoo Island” (1957) that wrongly associate voodoo with black magic and primitive tribalism. When politicians like former U.S. President Ronald Reagan use the term in phrases like “voodoo economics,” it is a further demonization of the religion. According to Miami photographer Maggie Steber, who has been to Haiti many times and owns a fine collection of voodoo flags, the accepted term by the Miami Herald is Vodou with a capital “V” to denote its significance as a world-class religion. This spelling was agreed upon after the newspaper conducted a focus group with Haitian leaders in the community. And with the largest expatriate Haitian population in the world, South Florida’s main newspaper is wise to be in step with what the leaders think.
MATERIALS AND PROCESS
Different-sized sequins and Czechoslovakian glass beads are found by flag makers in and around the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince (imagine a tin-roofed, open-sided Costco times three selling absolutely everything from fresh fish to fine art and you’ve got the idea). These supplies are also sent or brought to Haiti by North American collectors who appreciate the hardships under which the artists work. Creating a voodoo flag is a labor-intensive process requiring one maker a month to complete a flag measuring three feet by three feet. Designs are sketched in pen or pencil on squares of cloth that are clamped tightly in a wooden stretcher for weeks of attaching sequins and beads by needle and thread.
To complete a design takes enormous patience, good eye-to-hand coordination, and keen eyesight. It*rsquo;s no wonder that the more famous artists of this medium, including Yves Telemaque and Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph, employ younger men to do these repetitive sewing tasks while Telemaque and Joseph act as designers and overseers of their work.
Each spirit or loa, a term of Congolese origin, has its own personality, sacred days, favorite tree and special color. Guede, lord of the cemetery, is fond of black. However, expedience and lack of materials may dictate the use of alternative fabrics and adornments in contradiction of a loa’s preference. The spirits are portrayed on voodoo flags in symbolic diagrams called vevesor in human form. Ogoun, the spirit of fire, war and metallurgical elements, is often pictured on flags with a geometric symbol. Other gods are portrayed as Catholic saints such as Saint Jacques, the horse-riding perpetual hero. The simplest flags are painted fabrics, devoid of extra embellishment. Whether heavily using sequins and beads that catch and reflect the light in myriad ways, or merely cloth with paint depicting a cherished spirit, all voodoo flags are equally sacred in standing for the maker’s faith.
There are five major categories or families of voodoo services. Rada is a benevolent category with roots mostly in Africa, while Petro is a dangerous even malevolent category born in the New World. As noted anthropologist, filmmaker and author Maya Deren writes in her landmark study of voodoo “The Divine Horsemen,” “If the Rada loa represent the protective, guardian power, the Petro loa are the patrons of aggressive action.”
The most famous female loa is Erzulie, whom Haitians regard as wealthy beyond imagining. Her favorite color is pink. She enjoys drinking champagne and eating white cakes. Coquettish and sacred at the same time, she is especially generous with those who honor her. She can also be demanding, exacting male worshippers to leave the beds of their spouses to spend time in Erzulie’s presence. Symbolically, she is represented on voodoo flags with a heart. Because of the influence of Catholicism, she is associated on flags and other pictorial representations with the Virgin Mary.
Other prominent loas are Damballah, the great male spirit symbolized by a serpent andAtibon Legba, the forceful medical doctor and magician who communicates between all spheres. Carrefour, whose celestial symbol is the moon, has the ability to command demons of the night.
The loas reflect the needs and wants of people who believe in them. There are hundreds of loas within the voodoo pantheon, yet no one source book lists them all. This would be nearly impossible, unless one were a scholar with access to written accounts dating back to the 18th century, since loas fall in and out of favor as time, place and desire dictate. New spirits are created while others outlive their usefulness and fade into ancestral memory. There are published stories about loas worshipped within individual families as a response to tragedy, then dying out as one generation after another found them no longer necessary as a coping mechanism.
HOW THE SPIRITS COMMUNICATE
Imagine attending a voodoo ceremony in Haiti, as I have done on several exciting occasions. The voodoo temple or hounfort is a tin-roofed dancing court with a dirt floor, often surrounded by a series of smaller rooms that contain altars to various voodoo spirits. A visit to a hounfort in Leogane led to a welcome reception, a performance with music and dancing, and a card reading by a houngan. The altar rooms of this hounfort were adorned with plaster statues representing saints, bottles of Barbancourt rum and voodoo flags unfurled for American visitors.
Deities use the hounfort’s center post or poteau mitan to descend from the skies or ascend from the watery regions of the dead and make contact with believers by means of spirit possession. The interior and exterior walls of the hounfort are often brightly painted with murals of the spirits along with words of identification. The ceremony begins with drawing a symbolic design known as a veve on the dirt floor of the temple. The veve is created by sifting cornmeal, flour, ash or another soft granular material held in a bowl through a person’s thumb and forefinger. Creating an elaborate design of interlocking lines and circles on the ground can take an hour or more. In the course of the ceremony, the design is obliterated by the feet of worshippers as they dance, taken to another realm by the music and the hope of possession. If possession occurs, the person’s body gyrates, often beyond control, and assistance is needed as the movements become convulsive and pronounced. The more powerful the loa, the more tired the possessed person feels afterward.
Flags are key in voodoo ceremonies. Two voodoo flags are tried to poles, held aloft and touched together at the ceremony’s beginning. Special guests are given the honor of walking under two crossed flags, which also function as a way of paying respect and welcome to the loa to be honored before it possesses a worshipper. As men beat drums and play guitars, believers dance by the light of candles, gyrating wildly as the spirit gets inside their body. The flags work their magic by helping to bridge the physical world of five senses and the unseen spiritual world. Thus served, the spirits govern the health, fertility, prosperity and other key aspects of the lives of worshippers.
Each voodoo sanctuary owns at least two flags. When not in use, they are kept near the altar, where they are thought to renew their mystical powers along with other ceremonial objects including dishes, pitchers and ritual hand-bells.
MAKERS OF VOODOO FLAGS
As Vodou flags made their way out of temples and into Port-au-Prince galleries and the hands of foreign buyers, curiosity about their purpose and function grew along with the numbers of people making flags. Some artists like Georges Valris imbue their flags with Christian imagery such as angels. Valris , who denies any belief in voodoo, regards flag-making as a commercial enterprise. Other flag makers, including Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph, are diehardvoodooists. He once told me a story about seeing the mermaid figure of La Sirene, who controls the fate of anyone dealing with the ocean, actually walking out of the sea. But Joseph is also practical, using the flag medium in documentary fashion to portray what he sees around him including cats and lizards. This broad range of pictorial representation makes him a welcome anomaly among the current crop of voodoo flag makers, a group whose numbers seem to be swelling in recent years. With his innate color sense and use of luxurious materials such as velvet and satin, Joseph is setting a high standard for the next generation of flag makers to follow.
Each flag maker is known for something special. For Yves Telemaque, it’s the fantastic and optically challenging borders of his flags. By surrounding the central image in triangles and circles, then using faux pearls to accentuate contrasting colors, Telemaque rivals the paintings of Jasper Johns. Then there are traditionalists like Clotaire Bazile, who adheres to voodoo heritage in his portrayal of gods and goddesses and their symbolism. His simple diamond borders recall the careful workmanship on American patchwork quilts. Even newcomers to the field are distinguishing themselves. Lerisson Dubreus uses the trapunto technique of his forebears who made flags half a century and more ago.
Since the early 1990s, women have been entering this male-dominated field. The late Amena Simeon and Myrlande Constant are known for exceptionally detailed and thickly sequined and beaded flags. Both trained in factories that made wedding dresses. Their work has no correlation stylistically to the work of their male colleagues, which is a good thing that sets them apart. It isn’t wrong to give Constant the title of the most ambitious of all flag makers because she is in the process of documenting Haiti’s voodoo-steeped history in flags as large as bedspreads. Several of these museum-quality masterworks are already completed. Other women flag makers include Mireille Delice, who is Constant’s cousin, the Bonhomme sisters who work together, and Nadine Fortilus, in her mid-thirties. Flags of exceptional loveliness are their province. The influx of other artists into the medium within the last five years signifies the competitive worth of voodoo flags with Haitian paintings as an exportable cultural currency of high value.
Painters known for voodoo-inspired visions have also taken to expressing themselves through the medium of voodoo flags. The late Saint Soleil painter Prospere Pierre Louis uses imagery on his flags that is similar to imagery on his popular canvases. He and the other four core painters of this school, including Levoy Exil, Denis Smith, Louisiane Saint Fleurant and Dieuseul Paul, had their designs custom sewn on flags to depict amoebic forms as the source of creation for a 1989 exhibition at their communal studio in Soissons-la-Montagne, Haiti, high in the fog-ridden mountains above Port-au-Prince. More recently, Miami-based Haitian-born artist Edouard Duval-Carrie, probably the best-known Haitian expatriate artist, supervised a studio of women flag makers in Port-au-Prince crafting large-scale flags based on his paintings. The project was commissioned by the Haitian government to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Haiti’s establishment in January, 2004.
VOODOO AS PART OF HAITIAN LIFE
A calendar of voodoo ceremonies may differ from town to town, but some dates are reliable throughout the country, such as the ritual feeding of springs on February 25. At the end of April, it is the dead who are given sustenance with okra and a kind of cabbage. Corresponding to our Halloween and Mexic’s Day of the Dead are the ceremonies for the Guede spirits on November 1 and 2. That is when men dress as women and women dress as men in joyous, playful celebration. It’s also when the strength of belief in voodoo sustains practitioners from the pain of rubbing chili oil on their genitals as a show of faith.
Through dictatorships and deprivation, voodoo has provided a profound source of sustenance for the people of Haiti. In the countryside, voodoo is also a means of justice since people don’t have access to lawyers, judges and the court system. Instead priests known as houngans and priestesses known as mambos are given power by rural communities to punish those who disrespect social norms. They are also regarded as healers, since most Haitians don’t consult medical doctors for their ailments. Treatment can be as time-tested as herbal medicine or as superstitious as the power associated with charms and amulets to ward off evil. Yet outsiders including North American missionaries with their own religious agendas continue to flood the country, trying not only to do good by helping to rebuild what has been destroyed of the deforested landscape, but also acting in ignorance by trying to replace voodoo with Christianity.
As essential to Haitian life as the charcoal that the masses use for cooking, voodoo is a means of transcending this troubled world and allowing Haitians to make contact with the divine. Voodoo flags, these sparkling cultural artifacts, are the physical manifestation of how that contact is ceremonially made.
ADVICE TO COLLECTORS
The proliferation of voodoo flags is a good thing for collectors, who can find numerous websites (please see our website links page) along with ebay.com and this website as a source for flags without even leaving home. Various galleries around the country, including Indigo Arts Gallery in Philadelphia, are good sources for fairly priced, gorgeous voodoo flags by name artists.
If you travel to Haiti in search of voodoo flags, it’s possible to find them at several galleries in Port-au-Prince as well as on the streets of the capital, between the National Palace and Le Plaza Hotel downtown. On the grounds of the Oloffson Hotel, there are sometimes voodoo flag sellers. I found a wonderful small voodoo flag in 2003 there being sold by the wife of Eviland Lalanne. Ask a driver to take you to the studios of artists like Yves Telemaque, Georges Valris, Mireille Delice and Sylva Joseph in order to buy directly from them. Expect to negotiate a mutually agreeable price and know that your bargaining position solidifies with the more flags that you buy at one time.
Displaying voodoo flags can be a challenge, especially if you want to be visually surrounded by all your treasures in one room. With the smaller, less heavy flags, one can attach them to the wall with tiny nails or thumb tacks using the second cloth underneath the top cloth on the top right hand corners. That way the weight is evenly distributed and holes from the nails or thumb tacks won’t show.
Personally, I think it’s anathema to rob Haitian voodoo flags of their initial spiritual context by turning them into pillow covers. Yet some collectors do just that, making them purely decorative pieces.
Other people like to frame their flags, an option that removes the problem of unequal weight distribution and nail holes when the flags are hung on the wall. Whether or not to keep the front of the flag uncovered is a question -- the tactile beauty of the flags is best preserved without a glass cover; but for preservation’s sake long into the future, perhaps covering the front of the flag in glass is the most archivally sound solution.
For passionate collectors who accumulate many flags, please note that they must be stored flat in a cool, dark place unexposed to sunlight and dust. Older examples should be handled with care.