An exhibit featuring sequined flags and steel sculptures from the Republic of Haiti has set up temporary residence at the Windows on the World Gallery at the Bellefonte Art Museum.
The exhibit, “All That Gleams and Glistens: Sequin and Metal Art from Haiti,“ reflects a complex history of the island nation including African, French, Catholic and tribal traditions. The exhibit features works by 20 to 25 Haitian artists and includes metal-cut pieces and ceremonial flags and fabrics adorned with sequins and eye-catching colors and designs. Curated by lifelong collector and gallery owner Laurie Beasley, this unique collection includes metal work made from recycled oil barrels abandoned on the island and ceremonial flags created to celebrate events, life cycles and history.
The sequin tapestries, properly called “drapo Vodou” or Vodou flags, and the metal steel-drum sculptures are relatively new art forms that developed independently of each other but draw on the same religious traditions — Haitian Vodou. A sequin drapo Vodou is the artistic expression of the religion of Vodou and originated as a sacred object. The original Vodou flags were made under the direction of Vodou clergy and sewn by members of the congregations. These flags then became sought after by collectors, so artists set up secular workshops to produce them.
Vodou is a system of beliefs honoring the African ancestral spirits that emerged in response to chattel slavery. But above all, Vodou is a political religion practiced by 90 percent of the population in Haiti, which mostly consists of the poor working class and the peasantry. The predominant elements come from the old African religions that the slaves brought with them mixed with the Catholicism that the French forced upon them. Vodou expresses the aspirations of the poor and disenfranchised people of Haiti.
“I’m showing two indigenous forms of art that emerged in Haiti in the late ’40s and early ’50s that were really unique to the country,” Beasley said. “They emerged independently of each other. The sequin banners and the metal — I like to pair those two because I think the banners are a good contrast to the metal sculptures, which are made from recycled oil drums. But the flags are a good contrast with the metal; they give them some spark. The metal is based on the cultural manifestation of Haitian Vodou, whereas the flags are truly religious objects.”
“Essentially, the flags serve as markers separating the mundane world from the spiritual one, much like stained-glass windows in a church,” Beasley said. “Vodou flags have many historical roots, including the royal banners of the Fon kings of Dahoumy, the Fante Asafo flags of Ghana, Yoruba beadwork, Masonic aprons and Catholic liturgical vestments.”
The steel-drum sculpture has never been a sacred object, but the Vodou tradition and its imagery most often is the subject of the metal artwork. This provides a stark contrast between the two art forms.
To create the metal sculptures, the Haitians use the steel from discarded 55-gallon petrochemical drums, which the U.S. military had dumped in Haiti during World War II. The steel drums are prepared for sculpting by cutting the top off one end, stuffing the drum with dried remnants from the sugar cane harvest, then igniting it to burn off whatever oil remains inside. The other end of the drum is removed and the drum is sliced open, flattened out and scrubbed. The tops and bottoms of the drums are used to create round art pieces. Hammers are then used on the flattened and cleaned drum to make the metal more flexible. The designs are drawn out in chalk and cut out using a simple chisel and hammer. Finally, the edges are sanded to make them smooth.
According to Patricia House, director of the Bellefonte Art Museum, the interest in art from other parts of the world has helped increase the number of visitors to the area.
“We have redefined the museum to focus on art from near and far and for seven years the attendance has steadily increased, and the trend has shown a steady increase in both visitors and members from Stare College,” she said.
Beasley, who owns a gallery in Chicago, said she has been collecting Haitian art for many years, making several trips to Haiti and documenting artists doing work there. She continues to be involved with many projects on the island, including art classes, afterschool programs, and promoting artists’ work in the United States and Europe.
According to Beasley, one of the main purposes for the artists in creating the metal art is to make money, which is made through exporting to the U.S. and other countries. Most of the pieces that are on exhibit are vintage but some are mass produced and sold in gift shops.
“Most of them in this show are older, and they’re done by some of the early sculptors, so they’re all one of a kind,” she said. “They’re vintage; they’re from the ’50s and ‘60s, so they have some history to them.”
Many of the items featured are from the collection of an old-time Haitian art dealer named Issa El-Saieh, a bandleader in the big band era in the 1940s and ‘50s. El-Saieh played with several Cuban musicians, but he was also a great collector of Haitian art.
One positive aspect that visitors and admirers are sure to come away with is that art transcends boundaries, no matter what our cultural, religious and political differences may be.
“I hope to share more of our world with our citizens helping folks to learn about traditions, cultural similarities and differences,” House said. “That awareness energizes our appreciation and curiosity.”