Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Old stuff I love #2: Haitian drapeaux

     If you were to visit our house — please don't — you would notice that much of the artwork — no, really, don't, I mean it. I'm sure you're a perfectly fine person, but it would be unsettling to have random readers blithely bursting into my home and ...
      Sorry, I'll start again. 

      If you were to visit our house, you would find it cluttered with Haitian art—oil paintings of historical figures, rag dolls, a sequined bottle, painted metal or paper mache animals—tigers, fish, cats—a box adorned with a leopard, and four drapeaux—sequined flags that were meant to decorate the peristyles of voodoo priests.

      They are relics from two trips there; first a two-week adventure on my own, to visit my college buddy Didier, who was working with Catholic Relief in Port-au-Prince, and then a second weeklong visit, a year later, with my wife-to-be, Edie. It was on that second visit that we really loaded up on artworks. We put up everything when we got home, have moved twice since then and never thought to not put them back on display. I can't tell if they're beautiful or I'm just very familiar with them.
    My favorite is this plump red heart, representing the loa, or goddess, Erzulie Dantor. "The goddess of love and luxury"—at least in the version I was told; there are a number of various explanations when it comes to voodoo symbolism, some of them contradictory. I was researching voodoo on my first trip — I had convinced The Atlantic magazine to consider a story on the subject. Erzulie Dantor, I was told, "gives a lot, but she expects a lot." Sounds like love and luxury as I understand it. To the left, the candle, to the right, the bottle of rum, with a kitchen knife poised at the center.
     Voodoo is sort of a funky folk Catholicism, and though it is the stuff of horror movies here, there it is taken very seriously. On the first trip, I was in the office of an American professor at the ethnographic institute‚an Ira something-or-other,  married to a Haitian woman, if I recall. A lot of Americans are blase about their faiths, I said --they belong, and go through the motions, but don't necessarily believe, in their hearts. How real is voodoo? Its pantheon of gods and goddesses like Erzulie Dantor, and Baron Samedi—how real are they to Haitians?
     "As real as if I were to walk around this desk and punch you in the mouth," he answered, one of the more memorable replies I've ever received to a question. That was the same trip where Max Beauvoir, the head houngon of Haiti, summoned his maid by clapping his hands together, twice.
Waiting for the drapeau to be finished in Haiti.
       Anyway, this hanging is a quarter century old.  I never thought sequins could fade, but they're fading, a little, at least the pink ones are. Edie and I found it on a street in Port-au-Prince, at a residence where they were being made. It wasn't quite finished, but we waited while it was completed. I snapped these two photos of Edie while we were waiting. I suppose the romance of the trip, the situation where we got the drapeau, as much as the image itself, is why it's still up, as soon as you walk in our house. Our trip was quite the adventure.
    That first night we landed in Haiti, we ended up in a small outdoor bar -- think a wooden platform, no ceiling, a couple curtains for walls, and strings of red lights overhead, very dim, a bottle of Jane Barbancourt on the table. Edie and I got up to dance, slow, slowly, with the darkness and the hot Caribbean night stretching all around our little island of soft light and music.


  1. The photos of your wife are charming, indeed. Can't say that I'm a fan of the artwork, though perhaps that just indicates that I'm a philistine. ; )

    1. No, it's a particular taste. We once had a house guest who was so freaked out by some of the other drapeaux (one in particular is quite unsettling) that she insisted it be turned to the wall before she slept here. Ever the accommodating hosts, we did so, though I do admit I found it chutzpadik of her.

  2. If you were to visit my house (no, REALLY don't, for numerous reasons), you would find framed fabric decorations and his-and-her wooden statuettes from Haiti. I wasn't cool enough to actually go there, but there's something about the artwork I find very appealing.

  3. neat closing image, you romantic, youe

  4. You keep surprising me. Haiti would have been the last place I'd associate you with. The Wade Davis whose book Into the Silence I've mentioned to you a couple times also wrote a book about his adventures in Haiti called the Serpent and the Rainbow. Quite engaging, I think.



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