Haiti Part 4: Art & Souvenirs

Art is everywhere in Haiti. Evidence of such can easily be seen long before arriving in the so-called arts epicenter of Jacmel. Within moments of hitting the bustling Port-au-Prince streets I found myself googly-eyed, head turning left and right just trying to zone in on all the details found on a passing tap-tap. Tap-Taps are small pick-up trucks that are transformed into magnificent, colorful vehicles of public transportation. The painted pick-ups often times tell a story, some have scriptures from the Bible and many have the faces of popular music artists going from front to back. Discussing the artwork found on tap-taps could make up their own individual post and photo gallery, so allow me to proceed to other areas of art found in the country.

I’ll begin by suggesting a visit to the Foundation Sant D’A Jakmel (FOSAJ) in Jacmel. FOSAJ is a non-profit institution with a mission to empower the Haitian people through art and cultural initiatives. By visiting their art gallery I could see their mission in action.

There are a number of interesting and vivid paintings in addition to mixed media pieces worth spending a few gazing moments. I would have loved to have taken many back home, including a large vibrant piece that had just been painted by one of the local artists hanging around the gallery. Unfortunately, I had some other souvenir purchases that had to be made before acquiring any paintings and now I could kick myself for not taking it off his hands.

At the very least I knew I would have a few photos and some memories to keep me going until the next trip in to explore more about Haitian art and the artists behind the brush.

The items I was holding out for more than anything were the voodoo flags. It was a D.C. based photographer that put me onto them long before taking off and with the way he described their beauty I knew it would be a souvenir I would like to have and give to family and friends.

Finding them was not always easy. There were a few art and gift shops selling beaded mermaids, but I was more interested in the flags with sequins – one-of-kind pieces. My first attempt to find a flag led me and my fellow travel companions to an area of Jacmel supposedly known as the red-light district of the town. We didn’t know it at the time. We waited in a small home while someone went to find the voodoo priestess who made the flags. Our wait was not a long one as a woman with a stern face came wondering in and then out looking for the key to unlock where ever it was the flags were kept. She returned with a very large, beautiful sequined piece of what I regarded as art and she regarded as something much more. The flag was done in black, white and red sequins. The material behind it was a light lavender color and the picture was of a knife pointing to a bowl of blood with the word ‘KRIMINAL’ beneath the bowl. She took all this very serious and it was the only flag she would allow me to see without being baptized in the religion. I passed on purchasing the flag because I wanted something a bit brighter and smaller. I did not beg to see others and she didn’t seem as though she were playing hard to get in not revealing the others. The search here was over.

The rain had started to come down in buckets as we pulled up to a second home where I was told there would be flags for sale. Again, I saw only large flags. Large wouldn’t be so bad if I were into the stuff for religious purposes or had a huge place back in the states waiting for my new world trinkets, but neither particularly applies to myself – at least for the time being. Though the two flags I was shown didn’t have the sequins or beads I was told the symbol found on them represented all voodoo symbols. Still, it was not what I was hoping for and so I held off once again. There was only one last hope in the area and we would not be able to get to it that day as the rental car could not cross the river where this last woman lived. I paid the man who had become our assistant in finding the flags to have the woman bring her flags to me when it stopped raining.

The next morning she arrived by motor-bike to my hotel with only three flags. Two were identical with the exception being in size and the other was only partially covered in sequins. I decided to purchase one of the larger fully sequined flags for all the trouble she had gone through. The flag had the word ‘Ba Ron’ at the top which she said meant cemetery. It seemed like a dark moody flag, but it was still quite beautiful. She said she had other colorful ones of the voodoo heart, but no further transactions were made that day as the other flags she brought back only got larger and larger in size.

It was on my last day in Port-au-Prince that I found a man who had obviously somewhat embraced the art of making flags for many people to include tourists. Buying five flags was never my initial intention, but he had a variety that were right size, price and he was also able to provide me with the story behind the spirits seen on each flag. He told me ‘carrefour’ which meant intersection was the gateway for all spirits to pass. The peach colored one (I cannot remember the name of that spirit) is the one that opens up ‘carrefour.’ La Sirene’ is the mermaid spirit and a very popular good spirit.

My lessons in voodoo spirits, flags and artwork in Haiti had to end there that day. I had a flight to catch, but I was pleased. I had successfully gotten souvenirs from Haiti that I would probably never find on any other Caribbean island.

Yesterday: Hotel Cyvadier & Other Jacmel Hotels
Tomorrow: Festival Mizik Jakmel Update