‘This is not America’s flag’: Artwork challenges what it means to be from the United States

Written Stephanie Becker, CNNLos Angeles

Ever since the Continental Congress approved the stars and stripes in 1777 at the height of the American Revolution, the flag of the United States of America has been a symbol of patriotism; an image of national pride displayed in front of houses, waved in parades and solemnly raised in ceremonies. But when a flag is turned upside down, burned, or altered in color and design, it can also send a much more subversive message.

A new exhibition at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, titled This Isn’t America’s Flag, explores this dichotomy by showcasing a series of flag artworks and asking what it means to be an American today.

Reaction to the murder of George Floyd

Conceived in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, staff began working remotely on the exhibit in 2020 as protests erupted following the killing of George Floyd and the deaths of other black Americans at the hands of police. With demonstrations taking place just a few blocks from the museum, Broad exhibition curator and manager Sarah Lauer said she was motivated to “be more responsive to the moment and what was happening in our city, our country and around the world.”

Jasper Johns, "Flag," (1967).

Jasper Johns, “The Flag” (1967). Credit: Jasper Johns / VAGA License at Artists’ Rights Society

Loyer said the team initially focused on two pieces in the collection – Jasper Johns’ 1967 “Flag” and David Hammons’ recently acquired 1990 “African-American Flag”.

Jones painted “The Flag” in the midst of protests against the Vietnam War by inserting newspaper clippings about the war into the image of the flag. A few months later, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act of 1968.

Two decades later, the Supreme Court heard a flag desecration case after a man was arrested for burning the US flag. The court ruled that it was an act of “symbolic speech” protected by the First Amendment.

Shortly thereafter, in 1990, Hammons created the “African American Flag”, reimagining the emblem, replacing the traditional colors with the red, black and green of the Pan-African flag. Loyer said Hammons’ version makes viewers wonder who the flag represents. “It’s ingenious in its simplicity,” she said, adding, “it’s becoming a really iconic piece of art because it’s still patriotic.”

David Hammons, "African American Flag," (1990).  Dyed cotton.  Broad Art Foundation.

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

After several months of discussion, the museum settled on a group of 22 artists and their varied interpretations of the flag. The exhibition features historic works such as Dorothea Lange’s photograph of a group of children posing with a flag in a Japanese internment camp in California during World War II, and 95-year-old sculptor Bethier Saar’s work depicting the Black World. World War I soldier on a tombstone with the US flag. More modern additions include “Extra Value (After Venus)”, a self-portrait of Genevieve Gaignard, who posed in front of the flag wearing a Thug Life T-shirt and a box of McDonald’s fries in her hand.

Logo for America

The title of the show was inspired by Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s “America Logo” animated billboard, which was first shown in Times Square in 1987. and Central America in a comment about the use of the word America to describe the United States.

“I arrived in 1982 and was shocked to find that in the everyday language of the people in this country (they) say ‘America, America, America’, (but) they didn’t think or talk about the continent, they only spoke about the USA” Jaar said in a phone interview. He added: “Language is not innocent, and language is always a reflection of geopolitical reality. So basically because the US is so powerful inside the continent, it dominates the continent financially and culturally.”

Alfredo Jaar, "logo for america," (1987).

Alfredo Jaar, Logo of America (1987). Credit: Alfredo Jaar/Artists’ Rights Society

Since the original work was first shown, it has taken on different meanings. According to Jaar, viewers took the piece as an anti-Trump message and a call for a more pro-immigration policy. “You are creating a work. It is shown at a certain moment in history, in a certain context. Time changes or context changes. and people start… projecting other ideas. And that’s completely normal,” he said.

Personal perspective

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

Twenty years ago, Songa, the cousin of multimedia artist Hank Willis Thomas, was shot and killed during a robbery near a nightclub in Philadelphia. Thomas turned his personal tragedy into a series of artworks reminiscent of the US flag but with thousands of stars symbolizing the victims of gun violence.

As the nation recovers from yet another tragic shooting, this time in Buffalo, New York, the 2018 article feels painfully relevant today. Cascading onto the floor of the museum is the 15,580 installation, which, according to Thomas, represents lost lives.

“They are shooting stars and I wanted to honor their lives,” he said. “We haven’t come up with a healthy way to memorialize them.”

As to why he felt compelled to work with the US flag, Thomas explained: “It means so much to so many different people, it’s important to interact with it and analyze it, reflect on what it means to our society. past, present and future.”

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

Hank Willis Thomas, 15580 (2018). Credit: Courtesy of artist and Jack Scheinman Gallery.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, Wendy Red Star’s “Indian Congress” installation references a landmark meeting of 35 Native Americans in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1898. and the International Exposition, a fair showcasing the country’s agriculture and industry to the world, and as part of the program of activities, visitors were offered the opportunity to see the Congress delegates as if they were some sort of attraction – the exploitation of Native Americans. with tours of their camps and performances.

Montana Red Star, originally from Apsaluka, collected historic portrait photos from the event and displayed them on two long tables, once again bringing members of Congress together in a different, more respectful light. But as a reminder of the colonial power game of the time, the display tables are adorned with US flags and patriotic flags. Red Star said the hands-on experience of cutting out each photo and learning about each person’s names and stories made it personal to her: “It’s very important that indigenous people and indigenous voices are humanized.”

Wendy Red Star, "Indian Congress," (2021).  Mixed media.  Joslyn Art Museum.

Wendy Red Star, Indian Congress (2021). Mixed media. Joslyn Art Museum. Credit: Colin Conses

“What’s important about exhibitions like this is that they present history and don’t gloss over certain narratives, and … I think that could make you even more proud to be an American. It is vital that we do not forget our history, including our violent history. It will only bring us healing.” Red Star said.

While all of the art on display is critical of the flag, patriotism, and what it means to be American, Loyer doesn’t feel the artists are being disrespectful.

“When any artist uses a flag, he relies on a presumed knowledge of what the flag might mean. So often it’s freedom, justice and freedom. I see these works truly believing in these concepts…and I also see the works as ways to challenge us, to think more deeply about these subjects, to think about history.”

This Isn’t America’s Flag runs from May 21 to September 25, 2022. Wide Museum in Los Angeles.

Top image: Added Value (After Venus) by Genevieve Guignard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.