The omnivorous nature of Haitian Vodou with its consumption of African, European, and American influences into one luscious spirituality has been vividly expressed in one of the culture’s unique art forms: the Vodou flag. A traveling exhibition is bringing some of these sequined banners to the masses in order to show this expression of symbolism, as well as dispel some of the misconceptions about Vodou.
Sacred Symbols in Sequins: Vintage Haitian Vodou Flags, opening this Friday at the Everhart Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is organized by the nonprofit Mid-America Arts Alliance‘s Exhibits USA. For the occasion, the Everhart Museum is bringing in items from private collections and photographs by Les Stone of Vodou rituals to complement the show. As the museum states, the flags are worth examining as “remarkable mosaics of religious imagery by combining and juxtaposing symbols of Europe and the Americas with those brought from Africa centuries ago by captive slaves.”
But it’s even more complicated than that, as the flags have now become a folk art commodity, another stage in their evolution from obscure spiritual object to museum artifact. Originally painted, they were also brought into their current sparkly state by the 1980s garment business. Yet the symbolism in the thousands of sequins that make up each flag, where a loa figure is joined by its vévé symbols, is a fascinating portal into a deep history of belief and the survival of that belief under colonial control. St. Jacques rides on a white horse amongst a glimmering triangular pattern, yet he is a mask for the warrior spirit of Ogun from when people were baptized as Catholic and forced to hide their beliefs amongst the Christian icons. Similarly, Damballa is sometimes camouflaged as Moses or St. Patrick, the snakes the Catholic saint drove away instead embraced as a symbol of serenity.
Patrick Arthur Polk wrote in his 1997 book Haitian Vodou Flags: “Ritual flags (drapo Vodou), the most celebrated genre of Vodou’s sacred arts, clearly reflect the creative impulse of Vodou and the intense process of cultural synthesis from which the religion emerges.” With such density of symbolism, from the appropriation of militaristic European flags to the paraphernalia of a corpse representing Baron Samedi, the ceremonial objects aren’t going to reveal themselves immediately to layperson eyes. Yet each has an incredible history to decipher.
Sacred Symbols in Sequins: Vintage Haitian Vodou Flags is on view September 26 to December 29 at the Everhart Museum (1901 Mulberry Street, Scranton, Pennsylvania.).