Haitian Vodou flags, or dwapo, are powerful liturgical objects whose unique beauty has captured the attention of art collectors and tourists to Haiti in recent decades. Scholars believe that the importance of flags in Vodou religious ceremonies traces back to beadwork practices of the Yoruba people of West Africa and the Asafor military flags of Fante people in Ghana. Among the most sacred and expensive ritual items, most temples keep two flags housed in the inner sanctuary, which represent both the temple and the particular spirits (or lwa) they worship. Well-off Vodou communities may have more. The militaristic origins of the flag is evidenced by their role in Vodou ceremonies: they are retrieved by two initiates, escorted by a swordmaster, who bring them into the main ceremonial chamber and conduct a series of elaborate ritual salutations before returning them to the shrine.
These sacred textiles first caught the eye of foreign art collectors in the 1950s and they have been increasingly in popularity ever since. The three major features of the dwapo are: the central design, the design’s background, and the border that encloses it. They typically represent Vodou spirits by depicting the spirit itself or the particular ritual design (or vèvè) and the colors and symbols commonly associated with the spirit.
The commercialization of dwapo has inspired a shift from a functional to a decorative art, as flag makers create more elaborate pieces to respond to the desires of their clientele. Some modern flag makers even use the medium to express non-religious themes. “Old-style” religious flags are square pieces of fabric featuring diamond-shaped layouts with widely spaced sequins and beads that do not completely cover the background fabric; “new-style” flags can have variable shapes, sizes, and layouts and are typically completely covered with sequins and beads.
~ Claire Payton
The Franklin Center would like to thank Carol Damian, Sherry Zambrano, Debbye Taylor, and Stephanie Chancy from the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum and Florida International University for making this exhibit possible.