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Sacred Symbols in Sequins: Vintage Haitian Vodou Flags

October 21 - December 12, 2013

Ezili Freda Daroumin

Creator unkown, Ezili (Erzulie) Freda Daroumin, mid-20th century,
plastic, satin, silk, sequins, and beads on fabric
Courtesy Thomas Schultz Collection

Haitian Vodou is a syncretic religion that blends the sacred iconographies of Africa, the Americas and Europe. Practitioners of Vodou form personal relationships with deities (lwa) that are subordinate to Bondye (Bon Dieu, or good god), a distant and unknowable supreme being. Numerous lwa act as intermediaries and are invoked to assist individuals as they cope with the struggles and challenges in their lives.

To communicate with the lwa, practitioners of Vodou create personal altars and devotional objects, present offerings, and engage in ceremonies involving drumming, dance, and spirit possession. Vodou altars, arranged with an array of items associated with specific lwa, can be found in the homes of practitioners, although many ceremonies also take place in a temple or ounfò and are presided over by a priest or priestess.   

Heavily beaded and sequined flags (drapo) play an important part in Vodou practice.  The flags are expressions of the multiple aspects of Vodou, often bearing images of Catholic saints and trace-work emblems (vèvès) of the Yoruban Papa Legba and Ogoun, for example. In ritual, flag-bearers, seeking to attract lwa, bring the drapo out from shrine rooms and enter the main chamber of the temple, where they perform intricate maneuvers with great pomp and circumstance, turning and wheeling with synchronized precision.

As exhibition co-curator Patrick Polk notes, “Ritual flags (drapo), the most celebrated genre of Vodou sacred art, reflect the creative impulse of Vodou and the intense process of cultural synthesis from which Vodou emerges. In these drapo, Kongo and Dohomean symbols confront, juxtapose and eventually merge with others from Europe to form a mosaic, reflecting sources as diverse as African ceremonial textiles, Catholic processional banners, Masonic flags, aprons and tapestries. Ideas and images that seem incomprehensible at first glance are woven together with breathtaking elegance and clarity of thought.”

Professor Cosentino adds that "To look at a Vodou altar cluttered with sequined whiskey bottles, satin pomanders, clay pots dressed in lace, plaster statues of St. Anthony and the laughing Buddha, holy cards, political kitsch, Dresden locks, bottles of Moet & Chandon, rosaries, crucifixes, Masonic insignia, eye-shadowed kewpie dolls, atomizers of Anaïs-Anaïs, wooden phalluses, goat skulls, Christmas tree ornaments and Arawak celts is to gauge the achievement of slaves and freemen who imagined a narrative broad enough and fabricated a ritual complex enough to encompass all this disparate stuff."

Baron la Croix Nègre

Constant (Haitian), Baron la Croix Nègre
, n.d.
Sequins and beads on fabric, SLU 2012.12

Organized by the Mid-America Arts Alliance, the exhibition includes early- to mid-20th century Haitian Vodou flags and intricate libation bottles. Portraits of contemporary Vodou practitioners by photographer Phyllis Galembo also provide a context for the dazzling sequin- and bead-encrusted ceremonial banners. Ornate Vodou flags and a selection of devotional items from St. Lawrence’s permanent collection are also on display.

The Department of Art and Art History has provided funding support for the lecture by Donald Cosentino.