-Originally appeared in Black Purl Magazine, Spring 2008.
Hollywood voodoo is dark and macabre, it conjures visions of the undead, wax figures stuck with pins; primal rites performed in the heart of darkness. Haitian Vodou flags have the opposite effect: they are bright and joyful, they sparkle in the sun or candlelight; their mysteries invite us in and our gaze gladly follows.
Haitian Vodou flags, or drapo, generally measure between about 2-3 feet square and often made in pairs for ceremonial use, though more recently they have attracted the eye of international art dealers and are increasingly made with the collector in mind. The flags feature a central anthropomorphic or geometric figure outlined in brightly colored sequins or beads sewn onto the background fabric, surrounded by a border of sequins and/ or fringe. Drapo, made in the last 50 years have come to be known as dazzling displays of artisanry, requiring between 15,000 to 40,000 sequins to complete, entirely covering the background fabric.
The modern Republic of Haiti shares an island in the Caribbean with the Dominican Republic. It attracted the attention of both Spanish and then French colonizers beginning shortly after Columbus discovery in 1492. Spain took possession of the “Dominican” side of the island which it plundered for gold, decimating the indigenous Taino population in the process and prompting the importation of thousands of African slaves to the island.
Beginning in the 1600s, the French made use of the western half of the island and the already well-established slave trade and established indigo, sugar and coffee plantations. By 1790, “the pearl of the Antilles” was the wealthiest French colony in America providing 40% of European sugar consumption and 60% of all coffee consumed in Europe.
In 1793, the bubble burst. African slaves outnumbered the white population at a ratio of approximately 15 to 1. Despite the French colonizers best efforts to divide and conquer, the African slaves were able to organize the only successful slave revolt leading to independence in the history of the Americas. The colonial world was humiliated, stunned, and terror stricken. The international community took immediate action to ostracize the newly independent nation. Trade networks collapsed as did the slave based economy. Haiti remains, to this day, one of the poorest countries in the world with 80% of its people living below the poverty line.
Haitian vodou was born out of this history. It is a mixture of elements from the many African tribes that found themselves enslaved and comingled in Haiti along with European Catholicism and mysticism and some native Taino beliefs. Vodou has been described as an inherently practical religion, which focuses on enlisting divine aid to assist with day-to-day problems in the current world, rather than focusing on ideas of redemption in the world to come. During vodou ceremony, priests call upon specific Iwas or deities, to mediate between humans and God. Drapo featuring images or symbols evoking a specific Iwa are paraded at the temple at the beginning of the ceremony to attract the attention of the Iwa and marshal the energies of the devotees. Drapo act both as offering and invocation.
Traditional Drapo represent the Iwas in one of two ways: through anthropomorphic portraits or geometric representations called vevès. The former often make direct use of Catholic conventional depictions of Saints whose attributes match those of a given Iwa. In this way, Erzuli Freda, the vodou Iwa of love is often depicted as a direct copy of a Catholic chromolithograph of the Mater Dolorosa.
Vevès, are geometric designs drawn upon the floor in flour, cornmeal, coffee or ash at the beginning of a vodou ceremony to consecrate the space and open gateway through which the spirits may enter. As the ceremony progresses, the vevès are obliterated by the congregation. Though many of the vevès look similar and may vary slightly from one practioner to another, each also invokes a specific Iwa and may also be used instead of an anthropomorphic representation on the Drapo.
Though traditional flags use a set iconography, flag makers exercise a great deal of creativity in their individual renderings, choices of colors and the compositions of elaborate borders. As the global audience for the flags has grown, so has the flag makers’ repertoire: many flag makers now produce “art flags” with non-religious themes. Still, most drapo makers are vodou initiates and it is not uncommon for the flag making workshop to double as a vodou temple. Training in the art of drapo making takes place through apprenticeship, and the more successful flag makers often employ assistants to aid in the tedious stitch work, freeing more time for the head flag maker to design and layout flags. It is more common to for the head flag-maker to be a man and for the sewers to be women, but both men and women participate in both tasks, and there are now quite a few female flag makers who have gained international recognition.
Flag makers draw or trace their designs onto a piece of fabric which is stretched along with a stabilizing backing to a wooden frame. One piece is often worked on by multiple sewers and can typically be completed in about a week. Sewers anchor each sequin to the fabric with a seed bead sewn to its center. Shimmering mosaics emerge stitch by stitch. Whether destined for the vodou temple or a distant gallery (or both), the creative spirit radiates from every stitch.