When I was touring resorts in Harbour Island, I was struck by a dazzling collection of Haitian art covering the walls of a gorgeous, ocean front cottage. The fact that my focus was drawn to a few wall hangings in the midst of a sprawling, sun -kissed, property speaks to the power of Haitian art. I immediately recognized them as Haitian drapo vodou or ceremonial vodou flags, by the distinctive beading and sequin work. As I follow the tragedy of the Haitian earthquake, I often think of the resilence of Haitian culture. The art, music and spirit of Haiti continues to survive in the face of centuries of hardship and opression.
Despite the stereotypes and misinformation, Vodou remains a syncretic relligion that combines ancient African spiritual beliefs with Catholicism, in much the same way as Cuban Santeria, Brazilian Candomble and Jamaican Obeah and it does not involve devil worship. Instead, Vodou acknowledges one God, as well as other spiritual beings. Those beings, called lwa (pronounced (LO ah) are the deities represented on Vodou flags. Traditionally, these banners are carried on poles and waved during the beginning of ceremonies. They are created by hougans or mambos, Vodou priests and priestessess. During the 70s, French tourists recognized the beauty of the flags, spurring art collectors to create a market for them.
The flags displayed above were crafted by the Haitian artist, George Valris. The concentrated beading and sequin work, which often takes up to 10 days to complete, indicate that they are strictly for display. The heaviness of the sequins would make it difficult to wave these banners. The first two illustrate "La Sirene" the mermaid manifestization of Erzulie, the spirit of love and beauty. She is one of the most popular lwa on drapo vodou, as she symbolizes wealth and luck. The last one portrays "Gran Bois," the sacred spirit in the trees. These art works may simply look like pretty pictures but they represet the triumph of Haitian culture. Vodou and its practicioners have been killed and persecuted for generations and yet it lives on, through the appreciation of art lovers around the world and through the unyielding Haitian spirit.