Spotlight on the Collection: March 2016

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Vodou flag (St. Jacques Majeur), 1980s, artist unknown, Haiti, satin, beads, sequins, paper chromolithograph, Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Robert Cargo Folk Art Collection; Gift of Caroline Cargo, AFI.223.2013
Vodou flag (St. Jacques Majeur), 1980s, artist unknown, Haiti, satin, beads, sequins, paper chromolithograph, Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Robert Cargo Folk Art Collection; Gift of Caroline Cargo, AFI.223.2013

In the Haitian religion of Vodou, beaded flags such as this are placed on altars, but also play an important role in ceremonies, where they are carried in processions and also worn over the shoulders. The flags, or drapo, are made to honor individual spirits, which are called loa (also spelled lwa). The loas are intermediaries between people and God, and they each have a particular domain, such as the sea, the forest, or the cemetery, for example, or a connection to particular elements or forces of nature, or particular ancestors. The identities of the loas can be traced back to spirits that were honored in West and West-Central Africa, the place of origin of many people who were enslaved and brought to Haiti to labor on agricultural plantations.

The French, who governed the island of St. Domingue (later Haiti) imposed the religion of Catholicism on African slaves and their descendants. For their survival, Haitians merged Catholic saints with their own African loa, and depictions of saints came to represent other spirits.

This flag represents Saint James, also known as Saint Jacques Majeur (in Haitian Creole, spelled Sen Jak). In Haitian Vodou, this Saint is associated with the loa Ogou. The origin of Ogou is found in Nigeria and Benin, West Africa, where Ogun is the spirit of iron, living on the cutting edge of iron tools, and weapons. In Haiti, Ogou or St. Jacques represents power, weaponry, war, and fire. In the flag, a chromolithograph (a kind of mass-reproduced print) of the Saint has been embellished with beads and sequins. St. Jacques Majeur sits astride his horse carrying a sword, shield, and flag, attributes that herald the awesome and sometimes violent power of Ogou.