Monday, December 9

Vodou flag exhibit flys high

Vodou flag exhibit flys high

Fowler Museum showcases Haitian ‘political banners’

By Allyson Harwood

In Christian society, one the best known forms of religious art
is the stained glass window. In recent times, stained glass has
become an art form in its own right.

The same transformation is happening to Haitian Vodou flags, on
display at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History through April

"The best way to explain flags like this and what they mean to
practitioners is what the stained glass windows in a cathedral mean
to Catholics," curator Patrick Polk explains. "They are both
setting off images of divinities in wonderful color – the light
hits it and you can’t miss it.

"Over the last two or three decades, they have become an
international art form. Now they are not specifically made for
Vodou – they are made for the art market, but they still largely
represent Vodou deities," says Polk.

The exhibit, "Sequined Spirits: Contemporary Vodou Flags,"
features 35 contemporary flags inspired by the art of the Vodou
culture of Haiti. It highlights the works of flag makers Yves
Telemak, Silva Joseph, Antoine Oleyant, Joseph Oldof Pierre,
Georges Valris and Petit Frére Mogirus.

"This exhibit is just to highlight one particular aspect of the
popular arts of Haiti. This exhibit isn’t specifically about Vodou.
It’s about an art form that has its root in Vodou, but is now
beyond that," says Polk.

Curator Patrick Polk is a graduate student and doctoral
candidate in the folklore and mythology department at UCLA.
Although this is his first exhibit, Polk was chosen because of his
experience in the field.

"I have been working in Haiti for several years, and researching
Afro-American ritual and belief," Polk explains. "Being in Haiti
with some of the people in Fowler and helping bring along the
material for the Vodou exhibit, they got to know me, and I got to
know the materials, so they suggested I do this."

"Sequined Spirits" is an extension of the "Sacred Arts of
Haitian Vodou" exhibit, which features more than 500 objects and is
traveling across the country. The exhibit’s supporters hope it will
inform visitors about Haitian Vodou.

"What scholars have to combat is a strong image in American
popular culture about Vodou," says Polk. "People think of witch
doctors and sticking pins, when these are just ways in which the
American pop culture has misinterpreted Vodou as a religion, which
is as rich as any religion you will find in the world."

The flags are rich in history, and still relevant today.

"Originally, Vodou flags were based on military flags, and they
were used in Vodou temples as the emblems of the society. Each flag
represented a different deity, and were only ritual implements,"
says Polk. "Vodou is now very closely associated with the Haitian
revolution, because the revolution was carried out and led in a
large part by Vodou priests."

Vodou flags reflect the current events of Haiti, one of the
poorest countries in the world. Current Haitian banners are now
"political banners, such as for Aristide’s political campaign,"
says Polk. During the embargo placed on the small nation, the flags
reflected Haiti’s current events in another way. "During the
embargo, the sequins used on the flags became very expensive. The
flags would either not be completely covered in sequins or they
would use larger sequins to cover more of the flags," says

These flags are made of velvet, satin, or rayon, and are
appliquéd by hand with thousands of sequins. They depict Vodou
deities, political movements, and relevant symbols of the culture.
"Color symbolism and ritual objects are heavily involved. For
example, the mermaid carries a trumpet, a banner and a comb. When
someone is possessed by this deity they often ask for these ritual
objects," says Polk.

"When people look at these flags, they realize that they are
getting a lot of the concepts and the imagery from the Vodou
represented in the art, so people will hopefully come to understand
it better. I think that it shows the vibrancy of Vodou, the
spiritual side of Haitian culture, and that their religion can
create an art form," says Polk.

He hopes that this exhibit, "can just be something where someone
can just walk into the gallery and say, ‘Wow. That’s beautiful
art,’ and not have to walk in with a preconceived notion of Vodou.
This is art that has a meaning, a spiritual value. Maybe there is
more to the religion that has created objects like this."

EXHIBIT: "Sequined Spirits" at the Fowler Museum through April
14. For ticket info and exhibit times, call (310) 825-4361.

The "Sequined Spirits" exhibit of Haitian Vodou flags shows at
the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History through April 14.

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