by Suzanne Labry
Fon Appliqué and Haitian Voodoo Flags
Back in the mid-1980s, I attended an exhibition and sale of Haitian voodoo flags and I ended up buying a small one.
Unfortunately, there was little information about the piece I bought—there was no explanation of the designs depicted on it, and only the initials of the maker.
Back then, there was no internet to assist in researching such things, and I quickly gave up trying to figure out what the symbols might mean. I only knew that I liked the way it looked—it reminded me of a folk art appliqué block, even though the designs were created with sequins rather than cloth.
Fast forward to the present, when I learned about appliquéd banners made by the Fon people of West Africa.
In describing these banners, textile historian Leigh Fellner states, ”The elites of Benin used a variety of brightly-colored European fabrics in distinctive ceremonial textiles which were neither made nor used by the general populace…appliquéd regalia such as banners, headgear, tents and [imported] silk and velvet umbrellas indicated both who held power and what power they held.”
There objects–and the imported cloth to make them—were reserved for royalty on penalty of death. They were produced only by the court guild of tailors at the royal capital of Abomey. And, according to Fon oral history, the first banners were commissioned by King Agonglo, who ruled from 1789-1797.
“After the French abolished the monarchy and the restrictions on the status use of appliquéd cloths in the 1890s, not only ruling elites but lower-ranked individuals began using these textiles in their homes as wall decorations and even pillow covers,” Fellner continues. Examples of Fon banners can be seen on Fellner’s website.
The Atlantic slave trade brought many Fon people to the Americas, with significant numbers of them ending up in the Caribbean, including Haiti. It was there where Fon culture melded with Catholicism practiced by the French, Portuguese, and Spanish of the area to produce the distinct religion of Voodoo (or Vodou).
Slave uprisings in Haiti began in 1791 and ended in 1804 with the establishment of Haiti as the first independent black nation. Flags have been important in Haitian culture from the beginning of the republic.
Flags are also used in Voodoo sanctuaries and ceremonies and it is not hard to see the influence of Fon appliqué banners on the “drapo Vodou,” as Voodoo flags are called.
I have no direct research to back this up. However, the ceremonial use of banners and the visual similarities between the Fon textiles and Haitian Voodoo flags do suggest a common cultural ancestry.
According to Laurie Beasley a specialist in Haitian and African art, “The roots of drapo Vodou are many. Indigenous flags may have existed in Africa before the coming of the Europeans but by 1600 their use in West Africa was widespread and derivative of European sources. Flags and banners expressed cultural identity, military prowess, and religious affiliation.
“We have the example of the royal banners of the Fon kings of Dahoumy (Bénin) and the Fante Asafo flags of Ghana. Other roots include Yoruba beadwork, Masonic aprons, and Catholic liturgical vestments. Counterparts of the drapo Vodou in the New World include the regal standard of the Afro-Brazilian samba schools and the Orisha flags of Grenada and Trinidad.”
Drapo Vodou are traditionally made by practicing Voodoo priests and their followers.
Each flag depicts the vévé symbol, or image of the spirit to which it is devoted. A vévé is a graphic design that is believed to act as a beacon or a guide for the spirit and it serves as that spirit’s representation during rituals.
In more recent times, as an art market developed for the flags, the designs became less ritualistic in nature and more like complex beaded paintings. I still like my simple little drapo Vodou, and it still reminds me of an appliquéd block. In any case, I like to think that it is the descendant of an appliqué tradition!