Haitian Vodou in Birmingham
By Sarah Grace Callis
The vast majority of Birmingham residents, some ninety-two percent, are Christian (data from the ARDA.com). The city is in the heart of the “Bible Belt,” a region known for its conservative evangelical culture. Therefore, it is remarkable that Birmingham’s city ownedart museum is home to collections of art representing cultures from across the world. Birmingham defies its stereotypes. One remarkable aspect of the Robert Cargo folk art collection is its large collection of Vodou flags.
The Birmingham Museum of Art was originally known as the Birmingham Art Club and was founded in 1908. The club got its start as an art exhibit for a group of Italian Renaissance paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection (History). Over time, the club started to gain traction from financial donations and in 1951, the Birmingham Museum of Art was opened in City Hall. Eight years later, in 1959, a building was erected, giving the museum a permanent home. Throughout the years, the museum has continued to grow with the help of generous donations of art pieces from around the world (History).
Haitian Vodou originated in the eighteenth century as an underground religion, formed by African slaves in order to unite against the Catholic-French leaders who had colonized Haiti. The French leaders in Haiti saw Vodou as a threat to their power over the colony, and thus Vodou was banned, along with any other non-Catholic religions. Throughout the years, the battle between the Catholic Church and Haitian Vodou continued, until 1972, when the practice of Vodou was finally made legal (Mazzei). Vodou then became one of the official religions of Haiti in 2003. Although the the Catholic Church had sought to ban Vodou, Catholicism played a large role in the creation of the religion. Many images seen in Haitian Vodou art are rooted in Catholicism. Unlike some religions, Vodou does not follow a written text. Instead, the religion is mainly based on the power of the spirits and the two separate “visible” and “invisible” worlds. It is thought that when one dies, he or she enters the invisible world, but the spirit stays in the visible world (Mazzei). Certain spirits that are seen as higher powers are known as the “loa.” Vodou practitioners seek to interact with these spirits. Communication with the spirits is commonly reached through religious ceremonies in which priests invoke the spirits. To invoke the spirits, the Vodou priests draw symbols in the ground or use the flags or banners. For this reason, religious flags and banners hold great importance (Mazzei). These flags are commonly found on or near altars because they each represent a certain loa using specific symbols, called vévés, that represent the respective spirits. Other times they use the iconography of the Catholic saint identified with the loa. During religious rituals or ceremonies, the flags are brought into sacred places or are worn by worshippers in order to draw in the spirits and invite them to join in the religious ceremony that is being performed (Haitian Flags). Therefore, these flags are sacred and are carefully crafted through a detailed process that can take up to ten days to complete.
A flag of Damballah or St. Patrick, is one of those in the Cargo Collection at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
It was created by the Haitian artist, Joseph Oldof Pierre who was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1955 (Joseph). Like his father before him, he continued the practice of Haitian Vodou and had hoped to become a Vodou priest himself. However, he started making Haitian flags instead after his father’s death in 1980 and continued to make them until his own death in 1994 (Joseph). The style of this piece is the traditional. It is made from colorful satin, sequins, and glass beads. These are all commonly used in making these flags. The bright colors of the flag are not only pleasing to the eye invite the loa to join the religious ceremonies being performed.
This flag, along with the others in its collection was generously donated to the Birmingham Museum of Art by Caroline Cargo, the daughter of field collector, Robert Cargo, in 2013 (Vodou). Robert Cargo studied French literature and seemed to have a vast interest in the romance languages. He taught at the University of Alabama. He made many trips to Haiti throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In Haiti, he began to collect various pieces of folk art, such as the Vodou flags. Cargo’s collection of art eventually became large enough to begin his own gallery in Tuscaloosa. After his death, his daughter Caroline donated seventy-five of his Haitian Vodou pieces to the Birmingham Museum of Art (Journey).
This flag represents the spirit Damballah. Damballah is the loa who is credited with the creation of the world and all other gods. He is most commonly represented in serpent form. Therefore, he is seen as the oldest and most powerful god (Kingdom). St. Patrick was identified with Damhallah because he is commonly depicted with snakes. This is because he is credited with driving all of the snakes out of Ireland. When the Catholic Church banned the practice of Vodou in Haiti, the practitioners began to represent their loas with Catholic saints in order to hide their religion from the French leaders. Because St. Patrick is associated with snakes, it is easy to understand why the practitioners of Vodou would choose him to represent the loa that is symbolized with serpents.
One interpretation that might be taken from this image is that the snakes, or Damballah, represent the early religion of Haitian Vodou beginning to form in the colony of Haiti. The image of St. Patrick could be seen as representing the Catholic Church or Catholic-French leaders in the colony. Just as the tale of St. Patrick sending the snakes out of Ireland is depicted in this flag, the flag could also represent the history of the Catholic Church attempting to silence the practitioners of Haitian Vodou and drive the religion out of Haiti. Although this may not be the true meaning or interpretation of the flag, it seems to make sense when thinking of the story as a whole. Another interpretation of the flag could simply show the flow of one religion to another through the representation of a Christian saint in Haitian Vodou art.
Although this flag is one small piece of art in the Birmingham Museum of Art, the Haitian art collection as a whole helps to raise awareness and educate others on the different religions and diverse cultures of our world. It may also be refreshing for some people to see images and art from other religions that are not widely represented here in Birmingham, or the Bible Belt.
Haitian Vodou Flag or Banner (Damballah/St. Patrick)
Medium: Satin, sequins, and glass beads
Artist: Joseph Oldof Pierre
Created and Installed: 1980-1994, 2013
Location: Birmingham Museum of Art, 2000 Reverend Abraham Woods Jr Boulevard, Birmingham, Alabama 35203
Bhamwiki. Alabama. 10 June 2016, http://www.bhamwiki.com/w/Alabama
Birmingham Museum of Art. History & Timeline. artsbma.org, https://www.artsbma.org/the-museum/history-timeline/. Accessed 12 Sept. 2020.
—. Haitian Flags from the Cargo Collection, artsbma.org, 26 June 2016, https://www.artsbma.org/exhibition/haitian-flags-from-the-cargo-collection/.
—. 5 Things To Know About “Haitian Flags,” artsbma.org, 22 Feb. 2016, https://www.artsbma.org/5-things-to-know-about-haitian-flags/.
—. Vodou Flag or Banner (Damballah/St. Patrick). artsbma.org, 2013, https://www.artsbma.org/collection/vodou-flag-or-banner-damballah-st-patrick/.
Journey, Edward. “Communion: Haitian Flags at the Birmingham Museum of Art.” Professional Southerner. March 6, 2016 https://professionalsoutherner.com/2016/03/06/communion-haitian-vodou-flags-at-the-birmingham-museum-of-art/
“Joseph Oldof Pierre.” invaluable.com, https://www.invaluable.com/artist/pierre-joseph-oldof-ome70rlyyg/. Accessed 14 Sept. 2020.
“The Kingdom of This World.” Damballah. 2017, https://msu.edu/~williss2/carpentier/part1/damballah.html.
Mazzei, Michael. “Haitian Vodou.” Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2020.
“Robert Thomas Cargo.” Legacy.com, https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/tuscaloosa/obituary.aspx?n=robert-thomas-cargo&pid=162051782. Accessed 30 Sept. 2020.
Sarah Grace Callis ‘22 was a student in the first-year seminar on Religious Images in Birmingham (UCCA 102) in Samford University Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Fall 2020.
Published November 24, 2020.