“Kay koule tronpe soley, men li pa tronpe lapli” – Haitian proverb meaning “A leaky house can fool the sun but it can’t fool the rain”.
No visit to Croix-des-Bouquets is complete without a stop at the studio of world-famous vodou artist and priest, Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph. Jean Baptiste’s Isidor Gallery has been receiving customers from all over the world for years and some of his most impressive pieces sell for thousands of dollars. Yet despite his fame and notoriety, like many of the other highly successful artists of Croix-des-Bouquets Jean Baptiste has decided to stay in Haiti and continue his work and mentorship to other aspiring artists. This is what makes Croix-des-Bouquets so special.
Stepping into the Isidor Gallery feels like stepping into a dream. The scent of incense flavors the air and the walls are filled with a riot of colorful, imaginative vodou flags intricately designed and handcrafted. The lights are low or even off, and the hot, humid heat of Haiti adds to a slightly dizzying effect. To be inside Jean Baptiste’s studio and to see his work, gives one a true sense of Haiti’s rich, intricate culture and religion. It feels like magic.
Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph was born in 1967 in La Vallé Bainet and was raised in Croix-des-Bouquets, a community known for its metal artisans in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. At a young age Jean Baptiste became passionate for folk art and textiles. Following his dream and passion for beadwork, he worked in a small factory where he honed his skills by sewing pearls and beads onto wedding dresses. Then in 1991, thanks to the receipt of a small loan from a friend, Jean Baptiste opened Isidor Gallery in Croix-des-Bouquets.
Fast forward two decades, and Jean Baptiste’s beadwork is world renown. Besides his famous vodou flags, Jean Baptiste and his fellow artisans make purses, bags, vodou dolls, and various other handicrafts. Like his fellow master artisans in Croix-des-Bouquets, Jean Baptiste has been instrumental in training new artisans in his field, helping the community prosper and ensuring this beautiful form of art does not die out.
Each flag is intricately beaded by hand and displays some of Haiti’s most mystical symbols from vodou. Even the name of his gallery, Isidor Gallery, is named after a famous vodou figure Saint Isidor – – who was a farm laborer like his father.
Some of Jean Baptiste’s pieces go for thousands of dollars to wealthy tourists and art collectors who come specifically to Haiti to buy his art. Thankfully, his fame and fortune has brought attention to Haiti’s artisans and has helped his community thrive.
Vodou flags have a long history in Haitian vodou culture. Traditionally, vodou flags were used to decorate the site where a ceremony was taking place or were worn on the backs of participants in a vodou dance. Today, these amazing pieces of art are being used as decoration and are displayed on people’s walls. One flag can take anywhere from 2-6 weeks to make and Jean Baptiste is a leader in innovative designs.
On a table inside his studio is row after row of beautiful one of a kind hand-beaded wallets.
Alongside art, Jean Baptiste is also a highly esteemed vodou priest. He was identified as a priest back in 1991 and has been conducting ceremonies ever since. While there is no definite number, the Haitian government estimates that there are about 3,000 vodou priests in the country. The real number is difficult to ascertain however given the high amount of imposters as well as the unending taboo in discussing vodou. While the strength of Catholicism is always present in Haiti, vodou often still remains behind closed doors despite being recognized as an official religion in 1991. (Catholicism has been an official religion since Haiti’s independence).
Thanks to pop culture, there is a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about the meaning and practice of vodou. The word “vodou” itself often invites images of vodou priests sticking pins into a vodou dolls to bring misfortunate upon an unknowing enemy or of someone cross-eyed, completely taken over by powerful spirits.While there may be a tiny slice of truth in this perception, vodou is actually a rather complex belief system and has been practiced in Haiti ever since the 18th century when West African slaves were forced under French rule to convert to Christianity. Instead of fully embracing Christianity, however, they learned to incorporate their own religious beliefs into the religion by assigning each Iwa (vodou spirit) to a Catholic counterpart. For example, the Iwa called “Legba” is associated with St. Peter. Assigning Iwa’s with Catholic saints was a way for the West African slaves to secretly continue to practice their own religion in disguise. A pretty amazing feat! Iwas also have a distinct list of recognizable symbols, offerings, attributes, homes, and colors. If you ever attend a vodou ceremony, see vodou-inspired art or visit a Haitian’s home, you will certainly see these attributes all around you. You just have to look. You will be surprised how often you will see it.Outside of the gallery is the home of Jean Baptiste’s vodou altar. A small fire was burning infiltrating the air with a light covering of smoke and giving the place a mystical feel.
Jean Baptiste showed us his altar and told us a little bit about what each symbol was for. On his altar, there are different symbols and offerings for the different deities he calls when needed. Some prefer rum, while others prefer coffee or a specific food. People come to him seeking protection, communication with their ancestors, prosperity, recovery from an illness or to ward off bad omens with enemies. The list is endless yet each vodou ceremony is private. One never knows what is discussed except the attendee and the priest.
Two years ago, when I was in Haiti I received this purse – a beautiful unique piece made and blessed by Jean Baptiste during a short vodou ceremony. I have kept it in the drawer by the side of my bed ever since alongside my other special gifts. Little did I know I’d be going back once again.
Although it was only a small look into Haitian voodoo culture and life, I am glad I received it. It is these magical moments when traveling that make it so memorable.
I traveled to Haiti with my dear friend Haitian-American Nathalie (Nat) Tancrede. Passionate to show the true beauty and magic of Haiti, Nat launched her new travel business “Explore with Nat”. Nat provides a fully guided week-long trip exploring different regions of Haiti and embracing Haiti’s culture, history and people every step of the way. To learn more about Nat and her upcoming trips check out her website Explore with Nat. You can also follow her on Facebook and Instagram.