Vodou Flags: Between the Terrestrial and the Spiritual

A number of recent exhibitions have revived a fascination for Haitian Vodou flags. These wonderful artefacts, far from serving a purely aesthetic purpose, can only be fully understood in the light of the Vodou religion itself. Two major Haitian flag-makers, Antoine Oleyant and Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph are discussed here.

Practiced by 90% of the population in Haiti, the Vodou belief system, commonly written as Voodoo in English speaking countries, takes its roots in Africa. It traditionally honoured the ancestral spirits, but it was a particular practice of Vodou - mixed up with elements of Catholicism imposed by the French - that was brought to Haiti by African slaves. The Taino culture, born on the island Hispanola, discovered by Columbus in 1492, similarly influenced Haitian Vodou as a result of the intermarriages between African slaves and Taino indigenous peoples.

The term ‘Vodou’ itself translates into spirit, but the religion stretches beyond the mere spiritual practice: utterly political, it is deeply rooted in the Haitian society and political economy. The majority of Vodou practitioners in Haiti come from the peasantry and the working class, and this is because Vodou has historically given a voice to the subalterns. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Vodou practices have been severely repressed throughout the history of the country. As recently as 2010, violent attacks against Vodou priests were reported. Although Haiti is a Catholic country, the government finally legitimized the Vodou religion in 2002, allowing its followers to practice freely.

Since the independence of the island in 1804, which inaugurated the birth of the first black nation, flags have played a significant symbolic role for Haitians. It was said that the Haitian flag, made of blue and red stripes, was ‘born’ when the first president Jean-Jacques Dessalines ripped out the white segment from a French flag. Flags, or Drapo in Creole, hold both a spiritual and artistic role within the modern Vodou system. Until the 1950s they were exclusively used at religious ceremonies. When art collectors showed an interest in them, local oungan (or priests) started producing and selling flags in order to raise money for their congregations.Ceremonial flags illustrate the divide between sacred and secular: their colourful beauty invites spirits to take part in the ceremony, acting as a ‘call to order’. The flags also represent the flag-maker’s tribute to theIwa– the gods who inhabit the spirit world.

Purely artistic flags do not necessarily refer to the religious aspect of Vodou: they can depict a myriad of subjects ranging from spirits and Gods to everyday stories and figures. These are generally constructed around Catholic chromolithographs, Biblical and popular images, and veves – gates through which spirits access the human world. Veves are traditionally designed in flour, coffee or cornmeal on the temples’ floor before a ceremony.

Two exceptional flag-makers have caught our attention: Antoine Oleyant and Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph. The former was the first Haitian to use Vodou flags as a medium of artistic expression, thus ‘liberating’ them from a purely religious utilitarianism and introducing them into the fine art realm. The latter represents a new generation of flag-makers in Haiti, eager to innovate and modernise the discipline.

Antoine Oleyant (1955-1992)

Oleyant is considered the Father of artistic Vodou flags. By incorporating narrative and dynamic elements to the flags, he succeeded in transforming them into ravishing symbols of popular culture.

Born into a peasant family in the remote village of Plaisance-du-Sud, Oleyant spent his childhood helping his family with the farming and selling the crops at Les Cayes market. When Antoine’s father Troinesca undertook the initiation rite that would turn him into a Vodou priest, Oleyant believes the loa – the intermediary spirit between God and Humanity – entered his mind instead of his father’s. This was a revelation for the young man. Without any academic education, Oleyant moved to the capital Port-Au-Prince in 1971 where he became an apprentice, learning from wood and metal artisans. An entrepreneur at heart, Oleyant found inventive ways to send money to his family, buying fighting cocks and selling second-hand clothes in villages. Another spiritual revelation occurred in 1981 when Oleyant dreamt of the Vodou Spirit of Love Erzulie. This inspired him to create his first sequin flag, which he managed to sell to the Musée d’Art Haitien for a meagre price. Investing the profits into more sequins, Oleyant fully embraced his passion for flag making and abandoned the other ventures. He subsequently opened a workshop with his brother-in-law, fellow flag-maker Macon Scylla.

In 1989, Oleyant was invited to set up a studio at the Hotel Oloffson. Its owner, Puerto Rican-born American musician Richard Morse, had been involved with the Vodou community since he had moved to the island in 1985. When American artist Tina Girouard spotted Oleyant’s talent at the hotel studio, she took his works to the Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette. A vibrant collaboration followed between the two, and shortly before his death in 1992, Oleyant created his masterpiece: a 4x6 painting called Homage Haitian that illustrates the political, economic and social struggles of the people of Haiti. Oleyant was more than an artisan: he was a true storyteller whose rich legacy has left an imprint on popular consciousness and inspired generations of artists in Haiti.

Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph (1967-)

Born in 1967 in La Vallé Bainet, Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph (or JBJJ) is the son of a farmer and a streamstress. Raised in Croix-des-Bouquets, the village where most of Haiti’s metal sculptures are made, JBJJ developed a strong interest for folk crafts and textiles from an early age. He further developed this passion by learning to weave baskets and working at a factory, sewing pearls and beads onto wedding dresses. When he received a small loan from a friend in 1991, he set up the Isidor gallery. This name was chosen in homage to the Vodou figure Saint Isidor – also known as Cousin Zaka Mede – who was a farm labourer. JBJJ employs ten artisans who make Vodou flags but also purses, suitcases, Vodou dolls, ‘bouteillespayettes’ (recycled plastic bottles), ’paquets congo’ (a type of gris-gris bag usually worn around the neck) and various other handcrafts, popular with locals and tourists alike.

JBJJ was raised as a protestant and religion inspired his first flags, which he illustrated with psalms and biblical imagery. But it was not a popular subject and he struggled to sell his works. When his mother had a Vodou revelation on her deathbed in 1999, JBJJ was ‘chosen’ by Saint Isidor, the Vodou goddess Erzulie, and the ancient spirit Papa Loko. He consequently represented Erzulie on his next flag, carefully stitching every intricate detail by hand. This flag was hugely popular and sold for 3,250 Haitian gourdes. It was then that the Museum of Haitian Art in Port-au-Prince spotted the artist and started selling his flags in the museum shop. Thanks to this great exposure, JBJJ’s reputation grew internationally and he subsequently exhibited his works at major art galleries in Haiti, as well as in New York, Miami, California, Australia – and now Paris. In fact, he told us that it would be ‘a pleasure’ for him to hold another show in Europe.

Making a Vodou flag is a long and meticulous process that can take up to 6 weeks. Drawing from his experience at the textile factory, JBJJ creates semi-sequined backgrounds to which he adds exquisite beaded compositions. The unique sculptural style of JBJJ’s flags is directly inspired by the metal works that surrounded him as a child. In an effort to break with the flag-making tradition, JBJJ started using satin and velvet – materials that he describes as ‘lasting’ and ‘beautiful’. These luxurious fabrics notably come in blue, red and black – the Vodou colours. JBJJ draws from a number of pictorial motives, including animals and Vodou spirits, and he uses flags as a medium to document and represent his environment. With his unconventional technique and vanguard designs, the artist has truly influenced a new generation of flag makers - some of whom he trains at his gallery.

The terrible earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 undeniably influenced JBJJ’s work, and the artist told us about the pain and the sadness that this tragedy brought upon the country. As JBJJ told us, ‘in the future years, we hope that Haiti does not witness another natural catastrophe of this scale. We hope that the country enjoys political stability in order to increase employment, and that the arts become a means to attract more tourism’. After being visited by an apparition of La Sirène (the Vodou mermaid) at a ceremony for the Water God Ague in Gonaïves, JBJJ definitely rallied to the Vodou belief. The artist is now a Vodou Priest, and his work remains deeply rooted in the Vodou culture.

By Mélissa Leclézio

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