[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

#1890: Haitian Vodou flags reflect a blend of the religious and secular (fwd)


Published Monday, January 17, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News        
Sequin-spangled banners
 Haitian Vodou flags reflect a blend of the religious and secular

 BY MARY GOTTSCHALK Mercury News Style Writer 

THE FIRST sight of Haitian sequined textiles usually inspires a sense of
wonder. Wonder at the work itself. Wonder at the story behind it.
Usually square or rectangular and often referred to as flags, they     
immediately attract the eye even in the darkest corner. The sequins     
and beads take the palest glimmer of available light and make it seem 
to dance. Some motifs, such as hearts, are familiar, and others are   
abstract or feature religious figures.``I'd never seen anything like
it,'' says Susan Tselos of her first glimpse of sequined flags from
Haiti in a small antique shop in Minneapolis more than 15 years ago. ``I
didn't know what they were. I thought they were incredibly beautiful,
but I didn't know anything else.'' Today, Tselos knows plenty and is
sharing her knowledge through the  new exhibit, ``Spirited Sequins:
Haitian Textile Art,'' that she curated for the San Jose Museum of
Quilts & Textiles. Based in Berkeley, she has been traveling to Haiti
once or twice a year for more than a  decade, researching and increasing
her expertise. On first exposure, many people are told, as Tselos was,
that the flags  are ``voodoo with spells woven into them.'' Tselos
dismisses such comments as ``exotic but nonsensical. `Voodoo' is
Hollywood, along with the total misconceptions and  racist overtones
that word conjures up. Vodou is the term for the  original religion from
West Africa. That's the term the Haitians use and  most scholars use;
nobody uses `voodoo' anymore.'' The history of Haiti and Vodou are
intertwined, complicated and  multilayered. In an effort to simplify it,
Tselos says, ``Basically, Vodou  is a syncretic religion, a blending of
beliefs brought over by slaves combined with Catholicism.'' The flags
evolved from the use of banners and flags in West Africa. In Haiti, they
took on new motifs and symbolism from Catholicism and French military
influences.`There are not many examples earlier than the 1930s because
of so  many anti-superstition campaigns. They'd go around and burn Vodou
temples and artifacts,'' says Tselos.The few early examples that
survived have sequins scattered, usually in monochromatic tones, and do
not display the heavy encrustation of those produced today. The use of
sequins increased in the late 1960s and early 1970s when beads and
sequins became more readily available as a byproduct of the embroidery
done in Haiti for the U.S.fashion market. Also, burlap backing replaced
muslin, allowing for heavier beading.`The flags you see today are really
a far cry from the ceremonial flags  of the last few decades,'' Tselos
says. ``Now, surfaces are completely  covered with sequins and beads.
Ceremonial flags were carried on poles and waved, so heavy embellishment
makes them impossible to  hold and use. They're fine to hang on a wall,
but not to carry at arm's length and wave.''The transition from strictly
religious to sometimes secular occurred in the early 1970s when Clotaire
Bazile, a Vodou priest, was approached by two French tourists asking to
buy the flags he had made for his temple. After initially refusing,
Bazile recognized that making flags for tourists could provide a
much-needed income source for his temple. Bazile started sewing,
remaining true to traditional colors and designs, and others joined in
when they saw his success. Today, many flag makers are more artists than
followers of Vodou, and their methods are imitated by artisans in the
United States and Europe.The exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Quilts &
Textiles features 32 flags as well as six sequined costumes used in a
Lenten celebration known as Rara.

 The ``Spirited Sequins: Haitian Textile Art'' exhibit continues through
 March 5 at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles, 110 Paseo de
 San Antonio, San Jose. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through
 Sundays and until 8 p.m. Thursdays. Admission is $4 general, $3 for
 seniors and students and free to children under 13. For more
information,  call (408) 971-0323.

  Exhibit curator Susan Tselos will give a slide lecture titled ``All
That Glitters: Haitian Vodou Flags'' from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Feb. 9 at the
 museum. Tickets are $10, plus museum entrance fee. For reservations,
call (408) 971-0323, extension 10.