Beginning Dec. 19, Haitian Flags from the Cargo Collection, a new exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art will celebrate the diverse culture and mythic beauty of Haiti with a collection of 21 brightly colored, ornately beaded flags or “drapo” made for Vodou religious ceremonies.
“Upon first glance, the flags are immediately dazzling, shimmering with bold colors and vivid imagery, but with further examination, one will also notice the powerful use of symbols and icons that reflect influences from European, African, and American histories, representative of the gorgeous amalgam of cultures that comprises the Haitian way of life,” said Dr. Emily Hanna, senior curator and curator of the Arts of Africa and the Americas.
Captured West and Central Africans enslaved on plantations in Haiti who were forced to adopt the Catholic faith of their Spanish and French captors secretly wove symbols of their native religion into the ornate ensigns. In Vodou faith the loas are intercessors between the gods and mortals, and in the “drapos” often took the form of saints to pass as Catholic icons. The flags were much more than decoration. Rather, they were representations of cultural identity, freedom and hope for a people striving to maintain all three under the most brutal circumstances.
“In both African and European traditions, flags and banners are symbols of identity, power, and authority,” according to the BMA press release. “When used in Vodou ceremonies, flags represent the loa spirits and are carried into sacred spaces of worship, and even worn over the shoulders. The shimmering banners evoke the great mystery of the loas, who helped Haitians survive unimaginable oppression and obstacles.”