E.S.J. has collected a 20th century Haitian Vodou flag, measuring 28 inches square. The center of this dazzling object is a pink heart interspersed with blue/green leaves; the completely graphic design is picked out in sequins and glass beads, hand sewn on satin.
This flag would have been an object of devotion to a Vodou practitioner to help the devotee touch the world of the "loa," a powerful member of the spirit world. E.S.J.'s particular flag represents a particular loa, Erzulie Dantor.
Unlike European devotional art, this flag does not carry a figural representation of a saint, but its glory lies in capturing the essence of a saint. The loa Erzulie is the penultimate feminine deity: She is represented as a huge pink heart that carries things inside; her colors are blue, green and shades of red. Yet E.S.J.'s flag contains dark, foreboding colors along the edges of the heart: deep, shocking pink and "renegade" green, the borders shot through with explosive crossed lines.
The spirits represented in these Vodou flags are never one-dimensional. E.S.J.'s flag represents a big-hearted female spirit, but that spirit is also known to be aggressive, overbearing, jealous and willful. In addition, she is also the saint of romance, fine things, and the caring heart. Bold red is her color for a good reason, and her moniker is "Red Eyes." If you mess with her children, watch out — she is patron saint against domestic violence. She also rules creativity, and is the patroness of New Orleans. Now you see why she is graphically portrayed as a throbbing pink heart on E.S.J.'s flag.
If you are a practitioner, your home altar will bear a flag of your special loa. In this case, Erzulie's sparkles are meant to hypnotize, and this glitter must have been seen as quite rare when the first of these flags made their entrance in the 19th century (few, if any, of the first flags exist now due to the climate). Catching the light, I am reminded of stained glass in an old church, and indeed Christian iconography has a place with these flags (Erzulie is often pictured in female form as the black Madonna), but then, many religions are at play around these flags.
Here's the reason: When the Spanish colonized Hispaniola, the native population (the Taino) suffered greatly. Then, West African peoples were shipped in the thousands to slave upon sugar cane, cotton and coffee. Every effort of slave spirituality was crushed, so spirituality went underground and became formidable. A blend of African religions, Catholicism and local spirits, a unique spiritual tradition emerged as Vodou.
Our own Saint Barbara, the third century martyr, is a well-known loa in Afro-Caribbean traditions and there are flags for her as well. In fact, I was taken aback when I visited a Santeria Babalu in Cuba last year for a blessing for my son and found on his personal altar a much-handled 3-foot plaster sculpture of Saint Barbara, as if she had been lifted from my back garden on Pedregosa.
Saint Barbara as a loa is protective, passionate and zealous; her Vodou name is Mambo Lemiye, a warrior woman. She is sculpted with her identifying massive sword and chalice. These are emblems of her dominion over fire and water.
Fascinating, therefore, that the first report of the Thomas Fire was heard on her feast day, Dec. 4 (2017). Vodou devotees would not have seen this as coincidental, as Saint Barbara (as Mambo Lemiye) protects against fire and water as a neutralizing force. Her flag often shows her striding fearlessly right at the edge of the sea, between two worlds, water and fire.
These Vodou flags hang, as E.S.J. has witnessed, over altars filled with saints' sculptures, bones, teeth, flowers, herbs, rosaries, Shivas and Buddhas.
E.S.J. might have found Saint Patrick sculptured with a snake as a flag, or a flag with the Virgin represented as the eternal feminine, Erzulie, as a heart, as he has found upon a visit to Haiti.
This flag might have been displayed over an altar, worn as a drape or paraded in a procession.
Always honored as a protection, as an art form, this flag might seem out of context on E.S.J.'s white Spanish Colonial wall here in Santa Barbara. However, there is a definite connection between the tradition of the Vodou flag and our town of Santa Barbara: Think of that feast day, Dec. 4, if you don't believe me.
The value of this 1970s Erzulie flag? About $500 to $600.
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Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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