We begin by using knives and carpet tacks to stretch muslin over small wooden frames. The room is full of tapping. Haitian artist Myrlande Constant circles the room as we, a combination of ten adults and students from Brown and RISD, sit in the basement of the Rites and Reasons theater attempting to bead our own Vodou flags. Upstairs, Constant’s flags sparkle alongside the flags of her students and colleagues, a daunting kaleidoscope of sequins. She wears loose clothing and quietly commands the room. Professor Katherine Smith, a friend of Constant’s and a director of the exhibition, translates her answers to our questions.
As she is teaching us, the language barrier becomes meaningless. No Creole vocabulary is required to watch and imitate. The beading itself is so slow and meditative that it is easy to forget the extraordinary nature of our situation and the extraordinary nature of Constant herself. These flags were traditionally made by male priests within Vodou temples—not for the art market, and not by women.
Constant’s work is part of “Reframing Haiti: Art, History, and Performativity,” an exhibition that is running in the Haffenreffer Museum, the Cohen Gallery, and the Rites and Reasons theater at Brown, as well as the Ewing Gallery at RISD, until April 21. An altar to Lasirene, consecrated by Vodou priestess Manbo Marie Evans, overflows in a corner of the Haffenreffer Gallery, abundantly sequined dolls perched on Goya champagne cola bottles. The Cohen Gallery in the Granoff Center bursts with paintings hung Grand Salon style.
Everyone smiles in awe and appreciation in front of Constant’s flags, bending close to see the beading, moving back and forth to see the way that light plays across the sequins. The work is accessible independent of contextual knowledge. Yet looking at the work provokes all kinds of questions: how does an artist working in a traditionally religious medium navigate the contemporary art market? How does Haitian art represent Haiti today? How can we possibly make Vodou flags lit by fluorescent lights in the Rites and Reason basement?
As a medium, vodou flags have a loaded history. Vodou’s origins has many parallels to that of Christianity: the single God Mawu lived amongst humans until quarrels drove the androgynous deity into divine realms, leaving the lwa spirits behind as go-betweens. There is a vast pantheon of these lwa, and in Haiti the lwa have become conflated and merged with Catholic saints through the religion’s translation of Catholicism into its own vernacular. Papa Legba and St. Anthony are interchangeable, as are St. Patrick and Danbala.
Vodou flags are usually dedicated to a specific lwa. They couple imagery of that spirit with the spirit’s vèvè, or linear pattern imbued with divine energy. A flag dedicated to Danbala will include both an image of the snake-spirit and corresponding vèvè. Temples generally have at least two flags that are used ceremonially to invoke the spirits they represent. It is implicit that, as the flag is waved, the spirit follows in its wake. The imagery of the flags is inclusive: they bear the influence of French cavalry banners and even reflexively use the vèvè patterns to reference their own patterns. In the 1970’s, increased global exposure of Haitian art led to the emergence of a commercial market for the flags, encouraging progressively more complex patterning. In this tradition Constant is a pioneer. She and her mother established the use of beads instead of and in conjunction with sequins, treating the beads as pigments in a way that enables more painterly tableaux with subtly undulating waves of color, perspective, and depth.
We are offered a glimpse into the complexity of the flags’ subject matter in Constant’s description of the narrative in one of her larger flags, casually folded next to us on a corner table. The scene is a cemetery. The central figures are the lwa spirits of the dead, Baron Samedi and his wife Maman Brigitte. They guard the sleep of the dead. In this flag, they have left briefly and on their return find sorcerers attempting to raise zombies. On rearing horseback, the lwa drive the sorcerers from the cemetery. In the upper left hand corner an angel’s hand points to a version of the Ten Commandments tablets. Implicit in the flag is the fact that Maman Brigitte is simultaneously the Catholic St. Brigid and Baron Samedi is St. Expedite. There must be ten thousand beads on this flag, five thousand sequins. The exuberant detail of the work is harmonious with the exuberant detail of the religion, the form harmonizing and amplifying the content.
A Haitian student of Constant made two flags that hang at the back of Rites and Reasons. Both depict the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. Constant is not convinced that the flags are successful. It is too soon, she says; the student does not understand the event yet, and that makes the flag itself confusing and difficult to read. These things need to be thought about, sat with, for some time before depicting them. The earthquake flags show chaotic scenes of figures being saved by the lwa and figures already dead. Compared to the other flags, which are more concerned with spirits and their attributes, these flags seem journalistic. Yet when asked about whether this reflects a topical shift in the content of Vodou flags, Constant seems confused that I would even ask that question. The lwa spirits are everywhere, in everything inexplicable; they are absolutely of this moment. The inclination to place the spiritual in a realm removed from the present does not exist in Vodou.
Constant assumes the role of teacher with ease and authority as we begin to bead, moving from flag to flag and fixing our frayed string and dropped beads with a deftness that is expected but still astounding. We work in intense silence; it is only on the second night of the workshop that we earn the right to listen to some music. She shares with us a book of vèvès that was owned by her grandfather, a Vodou priest. Constant does not comment on the content of our flags, though as we are considering our designs she does demand at least one of us to do a vèvè pattern for Papa Legba, the lwa intermediary between the divine and humanity.
We relax a little, as her request makes explicit the fact that it is all right for us, as white Westerners—in Haiti all foreigners are considered white regardless of actual skin tone— to bead these powerful symbols. For a religion that draws power from exuberant incorporation of other religions and general bricolage mentality, our free interpretations of vèvè designs and labored beading seemed somehow right. Even the way in which this commercialized flag making has developed seems to be more a Vodou-like embrace of capitalism than “selling out.” Constant is refreshingly happy about the money she is making with her work; she shares none of the angst embodied by our beloved concept of the starving bohemian artist.
Tied to this hesitancy over whether we are really allowed to create our own Vodou flags is the question of how these flags made for a commercial audience are really meant to be displayed. Can you really have a sacred flag hanging over your couch? Constant seems to find the question inconsequential. Over the couch is fine, she responds. You can treat the flag properly and sacredly, you can give it rum and offerings, and it will have the power it was made to have—but if you want to have it as a decorative item, then that is all right, too.
The attitude is consistent with the whole practice of Vodou, the whole ethos. Living in a strange and mysterious world, we acknowledge both its mystery and our lack of power over that mystery, our inability to alter the course of a natural disaster or any other unexpected inexplicable event.
“Reframing Haiti” celebrates the global presence of mystery. Though Providence may be more corseted in the grand tradition of East Coast coldness than Port au Prince, the sequined lwa live here just as much as anywhere else. As Andre Pierre said, “We are made by magic. All of us in general are magicians.”