Haitian Vodou flags are not like any flags I've ever seen. They're more square-shaped than rectangular, and they're covered in beads and sequins. We're talking somewhere in the neighborhood of 18,000-20,000 beads and sequins per flag. They appreciate the art of Haitian Vodou flags, all you have to do is look at them. Vodou lives outside of the “evil hoodoo” Hollywood trope.
The Vodou – it's one of Haiti's official religions. So if Vodou is evil, and most Haitians practice Vodou, then most Haitians are … not evil. This is not a horror movie. Vodou just got a bad rap because it's a little different, and you know how we treat people who are different in America.
Before Haitian Vodou flags were art, they were sacredobjects. Haiti was once French Colony of Santo Domingo. Africans were brought to Santo Domingo as slaves in the 1600s and 1700s. These are the Africans came from different parts of Africa and spoke about different languages.
“Haitian-born American artist Edouard Duval-Carrié says that it was a very small country. Vodou united these differents groups under a common belief system. Like Christians, Vodou practitioners believe in a Supreme Creator, or God. In Haitian Vodou, this God is unreachable, so you have to reach through intermediary spirits called Loa
To summon the Loa, you need a Vodou flag. Different flags invites different spirits to the party. According to scholars of Haitian art, there are thousands of these Loa, but only about 16 of them get their own flag. The earliest Vodou flags, made by Haitian Vodou priests, contain an image of a spirit or a spirit for that spirit.
There's a whole wall of these vintage Haitian Vodou flags at the Tampa Museum of Art Tight Now – I counted 19 Altogether. All of them were made 40s-'80s, and they're all 40 inches square. Each of these vintage flags has a different symbol on it. Agwe, the Vodou king of the ocean. A pink flag with a gold heart hangs for Freda Erzulie, the Vodou spirit of love. Flags with white or green snakes on an invitation to Danbala WEDO, the Vodou spirit of happiness and wealth.
Another wall of flags is dedicated to the Catholic Saint, Jacques Major, a common Catholic stand-in for Ogou, the Vodou warrior spirit. Due to his association with the Haitian struggle for independence, Ogou is the most beloved Loa in Haiti. He is seen riding horseback, carrying sword and banners, galloping across 18 Vodou flags in red, white and blue.
Another section of the exhibition focuses on Vodou flags as art. This section displays work from the Haitian artists who, according to Duval-Carrié, raised Haitian Vodou flags as an art form. These nine artists represent three generations of Vodou flag making.
“It's a style that's an evolution,” says Duval-Carrié. Vodou flags have changed over time, as they progressed from being ritual objects used in Vodou ceremonies to become collected collections of art. This generation's Vodou flags are not your granddaddy Vodou flags. The sizes and shapes often start from the 40-inch, standard square, the designs have become more elaborate, and the colors have gotten
Lherison Debreus' work stands out for its three dimensional quality. In “Excite Lakwa” (2014), a gray cross and a black man protrude from a rectangular board. The man holds a bottle in one hand and a vessel in the other. A black cane hangs from his right arm. Is this Papa Legba, Vodou guardian of the crossroads?
Yves Telemak's “Bossou Ceremony” (2000) Bossou depictions, the Vodou protection spirit. In Telemak's “Ceremony Bossou,” the bull stands in a sparkly green circle surrounded by an unusually colorful border of hearts and triangles.
Each of the spirits depicted on these flags grants a specific type of wish or prayer. When a spirit arrives on the scene, it possesses the Vodou priest. Then you make your request. According to a 2004 article in National Geographic, most people ask for health.
In 1791, when the Haitian people gathered at Wood Caiman, they asked for freedom of white rule. Then they planned for it. Many consider this Vodou ceremony / political meeting at the beginning of the Haitian Revolution.
Haitian Vodou flags do not just tell the story of a religion. They tell a story of oppression, revolution, and independence. This uniquely-Haitian art form tells the story of Haiti itself. See it at the Tampa Museum of Art this fall
Sacred Diagrams: Haitian Vodou Flags from the Gessen Collection. Open now through January 26. Tampa Museum of Art, 120 W. Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa. tampamuseum.org.