2009 Weave of the week #42: Haitian sequined banners (“drapo”)

Traditional drum by Maxon, photo courtesy of Michelle Karshan

Traditional drum by Maxon. Photo courtesy of Michelle Karshan

As the days are growing shorter and darker (more so now that daylight savings time has ended),  I wanted to feature unusually bright,  colorful textiles this week,  so finding a “sequined Haitian ceremonial flag exhibition” in Brooklyn last weekend was pure serendipity.  I had never heard of,  or seen,  Haitian banners (drapo) before,  but something that is described as being “richly textured with hand-sewn beads,  sequins,  and pearls”  always gets my attention.  About a dozen sequined and beaded banners,  from Michelle Karshan’s collection,  were on display at Gumbo,  an eclectic store/gallery on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn (see below).

drapo exhibition

"Drapo" exhibition at Gumbo, Brooklyn

I spoke to Michelle and to Gumbo’s owner,  Karen Zebulon,  and both were very knowledgeable about the flags and generously offered information and written materials that helped me understand the exotic and unfamiliar work.

Vodou is Haiti’s main religion,  and drapo are used to summon the spirits (Iwa) in Vodou ceremonies.  Each spirit has unique characteristics,  and the images and symbols of each are the subjects that recur in the flags.  The sequins and beads are hand-sewn onto cloth or a rice sack, with a satin backing and border.

The glowing drum in the flag shown at the top  of this post (and on the left of the exhibition photo) is surrounded by a joyously beaded multicolored snake.  The American Museum of Natural History says,  on its website,  “the drum is the most sacred of the objects [that are used in service to the Iwa],  for it speaks with a divine voice.  Without it there would be no Vodou.”  The snake symbolizes Damballah,  loving father to the world.

Slaves brought drapo to Haiti from West Africa,  where they were an anonymous folk art,  but as the banners became more widely appreciated and collected,  Haitian artists started to bead their names into their work.  The drum flag above is very subtly “signed” by the artist, Maxon Scylla,  along the lower right edge of the piece.  Below is a detail,  but the blue letters are still too hard to read.


Maxon signature

Drapo can be appreciated solely for their unusual beauty,  but as with all art,  the more you know about its context,  the better you can appreciate it.  If you would like to know more,  here are some good sources to start with:  To see more banners,  visit the Haiti Art Cooperative website,  here,  and for exellent historical and cultural information about Haiti and Vodou, see the American Musem of Natural History’s website, here.  Sequined ceremonial flags were included in the museum’s 1998 Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou exhibition in NYC,  but I missed it,  so I’m glad I got to Gumbo.


2 Responses

  1. Hi, Eva, Thanks for your comment. Atlantic Avenue has been going through dramatic changes since you lived there, but it’s still interesting and diverse.


  2. Fern, these are so pretty and colorful. It’s really great that you find such wonderful and diverse works of fiber art from different cultures to write about. We lived in Brooklyn Heights for a few years around 1975 and Atlantic Avenue was our favorite place for exotic Middle Eastern shops and budding art galleries.


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