MRO Magazine

Exhibition of Vodou Flags From Haiti Debuts in Alabama

December 10, 2015
By Marketwired News

BIRMINGHAM, AL–(Marketwired – December 10, 2015) – An exhibition of Haitian flags made for Vodou religious ceremonies will go on display at the Birmingham Museum of Art on December 19. Constructed of intricate beadwork and colorful sequins, 21 “drapo” comprise Haitian Flags from the Cargo Collection. The vibrant flags depict symbolic imagery drawn from European and African traditions, and were originally created to accompany faith practice among believers of Vodou.

“Upon first glance, the flags are immediately dazzling, shimmering with bold colors and vivid imagery, but with further examination, one will also notice the powerful use of symbols and icons that reflect influences from European, African, and American histories, representative of the gorgeous amalgam of cultures that comprises the Haitian way of life,” says Dr. Emily Hanna, Senior Curator and Curator of the Arts of Africa and the Americas.

Beginning in the 1500s, the Spanish, followed by the French, enslaved hundreds of thousands of West and Central Africans who were brought to labor on Haitian sugarcane plantations. The faith system that emerged, under extremely brutal conditions, combined various African beliefs and practices that connected people to divine sources of strength — spirits called loa — who serve as intermediaries between God and human beings. Because Vodou was outlawed, and conversion to Catholicism was forced, practitioners often identified symbols and Saints from the Catholic religion to represent spirits from their hidden faith. Other European traditions in Haiti also became sources of symbolism in Vodou, including imagery from the Society of Freemasons.

In both African and European traditions, flags and banners are symbols of identity, power, and authority. When used in Vodou ceremonies, flags represent the loa spirits and are carried into sacred spaces of worship, and even worn over the shoulders. The shimmering banners evoke the great mystery of the loas, who helped Haitians survive unimaginable oppression and obstacles.

In the last 50 years, flags began to be collected as works of art by people visiting Haiti. Flags are now made for both purposes — for ritual use, and for the international art market. This assemblage is part of the Robert Cargo Folk Art Collection, a recent gift to the Museum of nearly 700 objects, made by the daughter of Robert Cargo, Caroline Cargo.

“My parents admired the beauty, creativity, and spirit expressed by Haitian artists and artisans even in the face of overwhelming oppression,” said Caroline Cargo. “As a collector of outsider and folk art, my father was intentional about knowing the makers of the art he collected; in Haiti he insisted on buying directly from the “houngans” or Vodou priests, whom he knew personally. My hope is that the gift of Haitian textiles will continue to captivate eyes and minds, inspiring BMA visitors to reflect on the historical and contemporary experiences of the Haitian people and our shared stories as global citizens.”

Haitian Flags from the Cargo Collection will open as a free admission exhibition at the Birmingham Museum of Art on Saturday, December 19. Several educational programs will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition, including a lecture by Dr. Benjamin Hebblethwaite, Associate Professor in Haitian Creole, Haitian and Francophone Studies at the University of Florida, titled Haitian Vodou Ceremonies, Songs, and Sacred Objects. The program will take place Friday, February 19 at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

A gallery guide published by the Birmingham Museum of Art will accompany the exhibition with a special contribution from Caroline Cargo.

Haitian Flags from the Cargo Collection is sponsored by Joe Piper, Inc. Additional support provided by the City of Birmingham and grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. For more information and related programming, visit

Founded in 1951, the Birmingham Museum of Art has one of the finest collections in the Southeast. More than 27,000 objects displayed and housed within the Museum represent a rich panorama of cultures, including Asian, European, American, African, Pre-Columbian, and Native American. Highlights include the Museum’s collection of Asian art, Vietnamese ceramics, the Kress collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts from the late 13th century to the 1750s, and the Museum’s world-renowned collection of Wedgwood, the largest outside of England.

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Cate McCusker Boehm