Ridge Art
SEQUIN FLAGS OF HAITI
1123 S. Ridgeland Avenue  Oak Park, IL 60304   Phone: 1-888-269-0693 or 708-601-9071 
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tropical paradise called Haiti." (Tina Girouard) His most powerful flags are those with Bossou as the central figure. His other signature pieces are his mermaids (Lasiren) and the Marassa (the sacred twins). Towards the end of his career he entered into a fruitful collaboration with American artist Tina Girouard. Antoine died from a brain hemorrhage in 1992.
After his death, his brother-in-law Maxon Sylla who mananged his atelier started producing fake Antoine flags, especially the popular images of the mermaid and the twins. But he was quickly exposed and convinced to make his own flags with his own name on them. However, one can still purchase "Antoines" in Haiti, so Maxon and his collaborators just became more discreet. Maxon does make a lot of flags with his name on them that sell very well, but the drawings are Antoine's.
One additional affect of the embargo was the closing of most of the factories in Port-au-Prince putting thousands of women out of work. One of these factories was a bridal dress factory. A group of women who were laid off from the factory took as many beads and sequin as they could as their severance package. They started making beaded flowers but this quickly evolved into the production of beaded flags using the techniques they had learned in the factory. Prior to this, beads were only used to outline and to hold the sequin. But the factory technique enabled them to attach beads quickly so they could fill as much space with beads as fast as artists using sequin. The fabric is turned upside down and a hooking tool is used to attach whole strands of beads. The down side is that the flags are very heavy. The most prominent artists in this group are Mireille Delice, Constant Myrlande, and the late Amena Simeon. Their success has caused some of the male artists to imitate them with varying success, such as Georges Valris and Ronald Gouin.
A couple of new developments are works by artist Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph, Laurencine Debrise and the collaborative work of Richard Morse and Manita. Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph is from Croix-des-Bouquets, the village outside of Port-au-Prince where most of the metal sculpture is made. His work is a combination of the drapo servis with the semi-sequined background and the heavily beaded images from the bridal dress school. His work has a sculptural quality reflecting the work by the metal artists that surround him.
Laurencine Debrise got his start making fake antique flags using a trapunto technique, similar to the bead work from Thailand. He was quickly exposed but the flags were beautiful, so he was encouraged to stop selling them as "antiques" and just sign them as his original work. 
Finally, I want to mention the collaborative work of Richard Morse and Manita. Morse is the proprietor of the Oloffson Hotel and a musician. The hotel is a cultural landmark in Port-au-Prince, a rundown gingerbread mansion with a history of intrigue. It's the location of Graham Greene's novel The Comedians and also the place where Antoine Oleyant had his workshop Atelier Simbi. Every do-gooder, CIA agent, and journalist at some point spends time at the Oloffson. Morse's band Ram plays most Thursdays. Manita is one of the artisans who sewed for Antoine. Morse does the drawings and Manita does the sewing. Morse's drawings are whimsical and charming, but it is Manita's needlework that really gives the flags life. 
Drapo vodou is the common people's art. It's not a "folk" art from a bygone time but its roots run deep. It has its journeymen, charlatans, innovators and geniuses. It can be too commercialized and it can be truly fabulous. But it truly reflects the life of the common people and the possibility of transcendence amid tragedy.
In order to understand the significance of a Haitian drapo Vodou, we have to understand what Haitian Vodou is. Vodou is a system of beliefs honoring the African ancestral spirits that emerged in response to chattel slavery. The word "Vodou" means spirit. Vodou is above all a political religion that is practiced by 90% of the population in Haiti, that is, the poor working class and the peasantry. The predominant elements of the religion come from the old African religions that the slaves brought with them mixed with the Catholicism that the French forced upon them. It also contains elements from the culture of the Taino, the indigenous people who inhabited the island of Hispanola when Columbus first landed. The Taino were enslaved by the Spanish and were, subsequently, exterminated for the most part in a short period of time to be replaced by Africans. Some Taino managed to survive in the mountains and intermarried with escaped African slaves who adopted some of their religious practices.
Vodou is very much a living religion today because it continues to absorb elements of contemporary life into its practices and above all into its pantheon of spirits (lwa). The
Vodou pantheon contains not only the traditional ancestral deities from West Africa (Damballah, Legba, etc), but also the spirits of revolutionary generals, healers, powerful priests and priestesses, resistance heroes and heroines (la reine Macaya, Anacaona)  all generally hidden in the guises of Catholic saints. This is very important because attempts have been made throughout Haitian history to suppress Vodou and its practices. The last attempt was the deracination (uprooting) of the Vodou clergy after the overthrow of the
Duvalier regime in 1986 and 1987. Over 400 Vodou clergy were assassinated. It was only in 2002 that Vodou was finally recognized as a legitimate religion in Haiti. Vodou expresses the aspirations of the poor and disenfranchised people of Haiti. Their empowerment is a threat to the ruling elite in Haiti and the foreign interests who exploit the cheap labor of the poor. 
Drapo Vodou is the artistic expression of the religion of Vodou. As a genre it contains elements from both African and European religious traditions. Originally, the flags were used solely for ceremonial purposes but in the 50's collectors started to buy the flags and the priests (or oungan) started to make them to raise money for their congregations. 
At the beginning of a ceremony, two reine drapo (female flag-bearers) and the MC (la
plas) enter the ceremonial space. The reine drapo are on either side of the MC with the flags draped over their shoulders while the MC carries the sword of Ogou (the warrior spirit who is conflated with St. James in Catholic iconography). They circle the center pole of the temple (poto mitan) doing an elaborate dance, swinging the flags and the sword and saluting the four cardinal points, the honored guests, the priest and priestess, and the congregation. Then they retreat and the ceremony begins. The dance with the flags demarcates the secular
from the sacred, much like stain glass windows in a Catholic church. The dance also serves "as a powerful reminder of the conjunction of armed resistance and religious fervor from which the Haitian state emerged." (Patrick Polk)
As an historical reference point, the slave uprisings in Haiti began in 1791 and ended with the establishment of Haiti as the first independent black nation in 1804, over 50 years before the American Civil War. Flags have been important in Haitian culture from the beginning of the republic. The first president of Haiti Jean-Jacques Dessalines is said to have taken the French flag which consisted of a blue and red stripe on either side of a white one and ripped out the white stripe to make the Haitian flag --- a blue and red stripe. The Kreyol word for "foreigner" is "blan" or "white" and the word for "man" is "neg" or "black."
There are two types of drapo Vodou  drapo servis (ceremonial drapo) and art flags. The most notable characteristics of drapo servis are the diamond-shaped border surrounding the central image and the widely-spaced sequin in the field behind the image with the fabric
showing through. The drapo servis will often have fringe around them and will almost always be 36"X 36" square. The central image will be a representation of a spirit depicted with an actual chromolithograph of a Catholic saint or the chromo replicated in sequin or a veve of the spirit. A veve is an abstract representation of a particular spirit. Basically, a veve is a gate that enables the spirit to enter the human world. Veves are usually drawn in cornmeal, flour or coffee grounds on the floor of a Vodou temple before a ceremony begins. As the ceremony
progresses, the dancing of the congregation obliterates the veves, thus opening the gates for the spirits to enter the sacred space of the temple. The divine name of the spirit will be written in sequin and the drapo will be unsigned by the artist. There are also strong design correlations between colonial French military flags and drapo Vodou.
Art flags depict a wider variety of spirits and subject matter, rarely have fringe, will vary widely in size and will generally be signed by the artists. The sources for the central image of an art flag can be veves, Catholic chromolithographs, images from popular culture and even Biblical stories. One well known flag maker Edgard Jean Louis incorporated a photograph of Princess Diana into a flag and called her Diana Erzulie.  Some art flags are more like tapestries, especially the more recent ones made by a group of women artists who came from a defunct bridal dress factory in Port-au-Prince.
Most drapo Vodou are formulated as pairs and are ideally made at the same time from the same material, but in practice this doesn't happen very often. The most common drapo servis pairs are Ogou and Damballah. Ogou is particularly important because as the lwa who led the slave uprisings, he is the spiritual leader of the nation and a symbol of freedom. Damballah, the snake, is the oldest of the African spirits and represents the life force and water as the source of life. An important concept in Vodou is balanse, balance. The fire of Ogou must be tempered by the coolness of Damballah. Sometimes Ogou is paired with Erzulie Freda, the cool goddess of love, Lasiren, the female principle who governs the sea, or her consort, Agoué. 
Sometimes there are three-flag ceremonies and the third flag will be of a mediating lwa like Gede, the spirit of the cemetery and the healer of children. A three-flag ceremony can be held with two flags if one of the flags has two spirits on it like Damballah and Erzulie. Combining two or more lwa on one flag is very common in art flags.
The roots of drapo Vodou are many. Indigenous flags may have existed in Africa before the coming of the Europeans but by 1600 their use in West Africa was wide-spread and derivative of European sources. Flags and banners expressed cultural identity, military prowess and religious affiliation. We have the example of the royal banners of the Fon kings of Dahoumy (Bénin) and the Fante Asafo flags of Ghana. Other roots include Yoruba beadwork, Masonic aprons and Catholic liturgical vestments. Counterparts of the drapo Vodou in the New World include the regal standard of the Afro-Brazilian samba schools and the Orisha flags of Grenada and Trinidad.
It would seem that most drapo Vodou in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries consisted of one or two pieces of colored fabric with some embroidery and metal bangles and glass beads attached. The image of the lwa would probably have been made from shiny fabrics like satins, brocades, taffetas, and velvets appliquéd to the cloth. The tradition of appliqué came with the West African slaves. In fact, in Dahoumy there was a special class of artisans (men) who made the appliquéd garments and banners for the Fon royalty. Descendents of these artisans are still making fine appliqué but for the tourist and art trade. An interesting side note is that now these artisans are incorporating sequin into their work having been influenced by the Haitians. 
Most flag makers credit the contemporary sequin drapo Vodou to Joseph Fortine who was the half-brother of one of the leading oungan in Haiti, Ceus "Tibout" St. Louis. Tibout had his congregation in the Bel Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. In 1940 there was apparently a visiting school of Afro-Brazilian samba performers who wore sequin costumes during a Carnival parade in Port-au-Prince. Fortine was inspired by them to embellish the Rara costumes of Tibout's band with plastic sequin. Rara bands are musicians who play and parade from village to village or neighborhood to neighborhood during Lent. Their costumes are a combination of 18th century aristocratic clothing and Catholic liturgical vestments. They often mock the elite and spread news and gossip as well as praise the spirits. Tibout had one of the largest Rara bands in Port-au-Prince and their use of sequin on their costumes had a big impact.
In 1943 Fortine was asked to make a drapo Vodou with sequin for Damballah by a mambo (priestess) from another congregation. He took a burlap coffee sack, covered it with satin and stretched it on a frame. He drew the image on the satin and sequined over the lines and randomly placed sequin over the background. He also developed a set of stencils to make the images when other congregations commissioned him to make flags for them.
Sequin are particularly appropriate for drapo Vodou because of the spark or flash of light that they give to the flag. The spark has a theological implication to a Vodouist. On many flags and Rara costumes you will see a star element. The star is a power point, a divine spark, or a pwen. A pwen is the point where the human and the divine intersect. It is the space between the fingers of Adam and God in the Sistine Chapel. A sequin is also a star element, so a drapo with many sequin has many pwen and is very powerful.
Joseph Fortine taught the first generation of sequin artists  Edgard Jean Louis, Sylva Joseph, Clotaire Bazile, and Yves Telemak. All came from the Bel Air neighborhood and are oungan with the exception of Telemak. They began making flags during the 60's and with the exception of Clotaire Bazile continue to make flags today. Initially, they enlisted their congregants to sew for them but as their ateliers grew, they began to hire artisans to sew for them. They stretch the fabric on a wooden frame, generally an open table top. The artist
makes the drawing and directs the work as well as sews. They use 8mm sequin held in place with a glass bead. It takes 18-20M sequin and beads to make a flag and it takes two people about ten days.
Sylva Joseph makes very traditional flags with an iconographic image of the lwa on a solid background bordered by geometric designs. He is a very knowledgeable oungan and known for his ability to draw beautiful veves for his ceremonies. "He perfects the presentation of the veve through the medium of the drapo." (Polk)
Edgard Jean Louis is known for his elaborate bead and sequin embellishment of the chromolithographs. He always leaves the face and hands unembellished
and covered with plastic out of respect for the spirit.
The son of a very powerful oungan who actually initiated Tibout, Yves Telemak is the youngest of the Bel
Sylva Joseph
Edgard Jean Louis
Air artists and the first one to sign his work. He evolved the Bel Air style with his elaborate borders but the content
remains traditional. He is the first to be a commercial success with flag making. All three of the artists use templates for most of the images on their flags. 
The second generation of flag makers ushered in the golden age of drapo Vodou. The making of drapo spread way beyond the neighborhood of Bel Air to encompass all of Port-au-Prince and the artists were not necessarily oungan. These artists include Eviland Lalanne, Joseph Oldof Pierre, Le Petit Frere Mogirus, Wagler Vital,
Yves Telemak
Vital, Georges Valris, Roland Rockville, Ronald Gouin, and the real genius of the genre Antoine Oleyant. The best work of this generation encompassed the embargo imposed upon Haiti by the United Nations after a military coup ousted the first democratically elected president of the country in 1991. The embargo lasted until 1994 and crippled the economy, making materials for flag making very scarce, but the scarcity brought great innovations in flag making, including the use of hand-dyed sequin.
Eviland Lalanne, who passed away in September 2003, was the oldest of this second generation and his style was quite independent of the Bel Air style. His work is characterized by his use of bugle beads instead of the round ones. The bugle beads stick up from the surface of the flags like icicles obscuring the surface of the piece so one almost has to look through the beads to see the lwa. (Tina Girouard) This gives an underwater quality to his best flags that is truly remarkable. He used no templates but did repeat his drawings over and over again.  His borders are interesting because he used a mélange of sequin instead of the geometric design of the Bel Air artists. This was his contribution to the innovative flag making during the embargo. Toward the end of his life his young wife took over the production of his flags and they lost much of their magical quality although they are still nice flags and very well made.
Joseph Oldof Pierre was another very original flag maker. He often combined the Haitian lwa with the Catholic saints in the same flag. Normally, an artist will depict one or the other, not both. He never made the same flag twice and used both templates and free style. He died in 1994. His output was quite small and he did most of the sewing himself. Much of his work is unsigned. His flags have become quite valuable.
I prefer to pair Wagler Vital and Petit Frere Mogirus together because their work interpenetrates so much it is difficult to determine who deserves credit for a particular flag. Wagler Vital did most of the
drawings for Mogirus who, although 7 years younger, is the more experienced flag maker. Vital is both a flag maker and a painter and became a neighbor of Mogirus' when the latter moved to Port-au-Prince. Mogirus established an atelier of sewers who made simple semi-sequined flags of the Vodou veve. He convinced Vital to do drawings for him. Vital had his own atelier for a while but closed it and limited his involvement with the flags to doing the drawings for Mogirus. Vital prefers painting to flag making because he has more flexibility with the subject matter and the materials. Although their color palette is limited because
of a scarcity of materials, their flags have a distinctive charm about them, often a whimsical quality that is unique among Haitian flag makers. The subject matter is frequently narrative in scope like that of Roland Rockville but without the latter's formality of design. Their flags depict imaginary encounters with the lwa, Vodou ceremonies and often Biblical stories. The two no longer collaborate.
Roland Rockville is probably the most intellectual of the flag makers. He has studied drawing and painting and apprenticed with first generation flag maker Clotaire Bazile. Like the works of Vital and Mogirus, his flags are narratives and the imagery can be a bit esoteric for the uninitiated. He is strongest when he renders the veve in sequin. When he renders figures in his flags, he uses a lot of shading that reflects his academic training in drawing. They can be a little too studied. He also creates superbly embellished chromolithograph flags. Rightly or wrongly he takes credit for
showing Antoine Oleyant how to make flags.
The flag maker Georges Valris is a very devout Catholic and claims to have no use for Vodou. He approaches flag making as just another way to earn a living. He doesn't claim to be an artist, just an artisan. He is probably the most prolific of the flag makers, and collectors have a high regard for his flags which are generally well crafted and can be quite innovative. One of the best flags I have ever seen is one Georges made during the embargo that is a very subtle political statement of opposition to the military junta at a time when it could have cost him his life. The piece embodies many of the elements that Tina Girouard came to call the "embargo" style  the use of hand-dyed sequin and many different sizes of sequin resulting in some very interesting pieces of art.
Ronald Gouin worked for Antoine Oleyant for a brief time as a teenager but they had a parting of the ways over money. His personality is aggressive and arrogant but at his peak he produced some of the most interesting flags of this period. He does not rely on templates and does his own drawings. During the embargo when it was almost impossible to find 8mm sequin, Gouin stated making flags using every size sequin from tiny 4mm to large 20mm. Not only did he make good use of whatever material was at hand, in the process he improved the art by introducing changing textures to the flags. Other flag makers soon followed his lead. His
best work has an edgy elegance that reflects his personality.  He still makes flags but generally collaborates with his wife Jean Carline who now produces more interesting work than her husband.
The best work of this period was done by Antoine Oleyant, the artist who really brought the flags into the realm of fine art. He claimed that Erzulie taught him to make flags and that he had never seen them before she appeared to him in a recurring dream urging him on. Tina Girouard
Traitement
Bossou
his soul. He made a whole series of flags depicting what Haitians call "traitement," that is, treatments for illness. At the time he was suffering from recurring bouts of illness brought on by AIDS. His "met tete" (the master of his head) was Bossou, the bull who is the spirit of agriculture and justice (land is a justice issue in Haiti). To Antoine "the bull was the earth, the soil, the spirit of his country, a spoiled
calls him "a natural visionary cubist."  His flags are characterized by a central image on a flowing background of hand-dyed sequin that change color. The central image is done using machine-dyed sequin. Antoine's flags were truly expressions from