‘It’s not the flag of America:’ Artworks challenges what it means to be

Wrote Stephanie Baker, CNNAngels

Since the Continental Congress gave the stamp of approval to the stars and stripes in 1777 during the American Revolution, the flag of the United States has become a symbol of patriotism; An image of national pride is displayed in front of the house, waved in procession and raised with pride in formality. However, when inverted, burned or tampered with in color and design, the flag can send a more destructive message.

A new exhibition at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, entitled “This Is Not the Flag of America,” seeks to explore this dilemma by displaying a series of works centered on the flag, questioning what it means to be American today.

Reaction to the murder of George Floyd

Workers began working on the exhibit remotely in 2020 as protests erupted after the Covid-19 epidemic erupted, with the assassination of George Floyd and the deaths of other black Americans at the hands of police. With protests taking place just blocks from the museum, Broad curator and exhibition manager Sarah Lower said she was “inspired to be more responsive at that moment and to see what’s happening in our city and in our country and around the world.”

Jasper Johns, "Flags," (1967).

Jasper Johns, “The Flag,” (1967). Credit: Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA in Artist Rights Society

Lawyer said the team initially focused on two parts of the collection – the “flag” of Jasper Johns in 1967 and the newly acquired “African-American flag” of David Hammans in 1990.

Johns painted “flags” at the height of Vietnam War protests, embedding newspaper clippings about the war in a picture of the flag. A few months later, Congress passed the 1968 Flag Protection Act.

Two decades later, after a man was arrested for burning a U.S. flag, the Supreme Court took a lawsuit against the flag. The court ruled that it was a work of “symbolic discourse” protected by the First Amendment.

Shortly afterwards, in 1990, Hammons redesigned the pan-African flag, replacing the traditional colors with red, black, and green, creating the “African American Flag”. Lower said Hammans’ version challenges viewers to question who the flag represents. “It’s brilliant in its simplicity,” he added, “It really has become this iconic artwork because it still ripples patriotically.”

David Hammans, "African American flag," (1990).  Dyed cotton.  Broad Art Foundation.

David Hammans, “The African American Flag,” (1990). Dyed cotton. Broad Art Foundation. Credit: David Hammans

After months of negotiations, the museum decided on a team of 22 artists and a detailed interpretation of their flag. The exhibition features historical works, such as a portrait of Dorothea Lang, a group of children posing with flags at a Japanese concentration camp in California during World War II, and a work of 95-year-old sculptor Betty Sarr, which mounts a picture of a black world. Soldiers of the First War on a tombstone with the US flag. Other contemporary additions include “Extra Value (After Fri)” – a self-portrait of the Geneva Guide, who posed for a “Thug Life” T-shirt in front of the flag and with a McDonald’s fry box in hand.

A logo for America

The title of the show was inspired by Chilean artist Alfredo Tsar’s animated billboard, “A Logo for America”, which first appeared in Times Square in 1987. The artwork flashed images of the United States, then outlined a map of the north and south. And in a commentary on the use of the word America to describe the United States of America.

“I came in 1982 and I was surprised that people in this country would refer to ‘America, America, America’ in everyday language, (but) they weren’t thinking or talking about the continent, they were just talking about the United States,” Tsar said. He said in a phone interview. “He added:” Language is not innocent and language is always a reflection of geopolitical realities. So basically, because the United States is so powerful, within the continent, it dominates the continent, financially, culturally. ”

Alfredo year, "A logo for America," (1987).

Alfredo Tsar, “A Logo for America,” (1987). Credit: Alfredo Tsar / Artist Rights Society

Since the original work was first shown, it has come to take on different meanings. According to the Tsar, viewers saw the piece as an anti-Trump message and a call for more pro-immigration policies. “You create a work. It appears in a specific moment in history, in a specific context. A change of time or a change of context. And People start … other idea projects. And it’s perfectly fine, ”he said.

A personal perspective

Some of the most powerful works on display are also the most personal.

Twenty years ago, Sonha, a cousin of mixed-media artist Hank Willis Thomas, was shot dead during a robbery outside a nightclub in Philadelphia. Thomas turned his personal tragedy into a series of U.S. flag-waving pieces, but thousands of them symbolized victims of gun violence.

While the nation has just released another tragic shooting, this time in Buffalo, New York, the 2018 piece seems painfully relevant today. The cascading on the museum floor is “15,580,” an installation that Thomas said represents a loss of life.

“They are falling stars and I wanted to remember their lives,” he said. “We didn’t really come up with a healthy way to remember them.”

Why he was forced to work with the image of the US flag, Thomas explains: “It means a lot to different people, to get involved and review it, to think about what it means in our society, past, present and future.”

Hank Willis Thomas, "15,580," (2018).

Hank Willis Thomas, “15,580,” (2018). Credit: Courtesy Artist and Jack Shineman Gallery

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Wendy Red Star’s installation “The Indian Congress” mentions a landmark meeting of 35 Native American nations in 1898 in Omaha, Nebraska. The incident coincided with Trans-Mississippi. And the International Exposition, a fair that showcases the country’s agriculture and industry to the world, and as part of the program’s program, visitors were given the opportunity to see congressional delegates as if they were exploiting a kind of attraction – the Native American people. With their camp tours and staged reenactments.

The Red Star, from Montana and of Upsaluk descent, collected historic portrait photographs from the event for display at two tall tables, restoring members of Congress to a different, more dignified, light. But as a reminder of the colonial power play at the time, display tables were decorated with U.S. flags and patriotic bunting. The Red Star says the experience of cutting out each photograph and learning each person’s name and history has made it personal for him: “It’s so important that the native people and the native voice are human.”

Wendy's Red Star, "Indian Congress," (2021).  Mixed media.  Jocelyn Art Museum.

Wendy’s Red Star, “The Indian Congress,” (2021). Mixed media. Jocelyn Art Museum. Credit: Colin’s Consciousness

“What’s important about this kind of show is that it presents history and it doesn’t silence specific narratives, and … I think it can make you more proud as an American. It’s very important that we don’t forget our history and We have a history of atrocities. It is only going to cure us. “ Red Star said.

While the artwork on display is critical of flags, patriotism and what it means to be American, Loire does not believe artists are being disrespected.

“When any artist is involved with the flag, they rely on a presumed knowledge of what the flag can stand for. So often it’s freedom and justice and liberty. I see these works sincerely believing in those ideas … and I see the works As a way of challenging, to think more deeply about those issues, to think about history. ”

“This is not the flag of America,” May 21 – September 25, 2022 The Broad Museum in Los Angeles.

Top image: “Extra value (after Venus)” by Genevieve Gagnard

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