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To many in the Europe-centric art world, the names Marassa Jumeaux, Erzulie Freda, Grans Bwa mean nothing. For Jean-Baptiste Jean-Joseph these sacred voodoo spirits mean everything, both professionally and spiritually. The Haitian artist has turned these religious icons emblazoned on flags into internationally recognised works of art.
The textiles threaded with beads and sequins were originally designed to enhance voodoo religious experiences, to facilitate the houngan, or priest, to summon the spirits. A major religion in Haiti, voodoo in the Caribbean region is a blend of west African animism, introduced by slaves snatched from places such as Benin and Togo, and Christianity.
Just as Catholicism has served as inspiration and means of expression for artists for centuries — think of the masters of the Italian Renaissance — voodoo has spilled over into art. The most recognised Haitian artists, Hector Hyppolite and Andre Pierre, were voodoo priests before becoming instrumental in the Haitian art movement.
Following the death of Antoine Oleyant, a voodoo priest and flag maker, in 1992, Jean-Joseph, who sports long dreadlocks and produces from an artists’ village in the town of Croix-des-Bouquets on the outskirts of Haiti’s capital, became the most renowned contemporary voodoo flag maker in the country.
His career began with a mystic vision, he says. In 1991, at the time of the military coup that toppled former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Jean-Joseph’s dead mother and Erzulie Dantor, a female voodoo divinity, warned him in a dream that “there would be no jobs in the country due to a problem that would arise”.
Surviving in one of the world’s poorest countries is hard, so they told him to paint portraits to be self-sufficient.
“I immediately obeyed the message, which initiated me in the art and voodoo worlds, and my artistic career began,” he says. His first work was a representation of Erzulie Dantor, honouring “the vision I had in my dream.”
Fast-forward a quarter of a century and Jean-Joseph has since trained dozens of flag-makers and employs 13 people. His flags sell for between $150 and $7,500 and he was recently commissioned to make seven by a US client.
“Voodoo flags are, essentially, targeted by collectors,” explains Georges Nader, Haiti’s best-known art collector and a member of the family behind the Nader Haitian gallery in New York.
The works are a rare novelty because such flags became available for sale only about 30 years ago. “Before, they were only designated for voodoo practitioners,” Nader adds.
Interest has risen among international art collectors. In December 2013, Jean-Joseph showed his flags at the Fondation Cartier in Paris — and with considerable success.
“At first, I exhibited three flags. I was then asked to add two more. The audience was so impressed that they purchased all the flags, even though it was not supposed to be a selling exhibit.”