Reclaiming The Racist Flag

Cliff Joseph, The Superman, 1966, oil on canvas, 48 x 24 inches

Cliff Joseph, The Superman, 1966, oil on canvas, 48 x 24 inches

Iconic symbols represent an archetypal meaning and/or have a collective cultural definition. Often times due to a vast range of ideologies, these symbols become dualities.

For example, the swastika is known in Western culture as a symbol of hate and in many Eastern civilizations as a sign of peace. The two uses of the symbol couldn’t be further apart. Depending on its context and use, this symbol can be interpreted in different ways. The Nazi’s adopted an ancient symbol, sacred to Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists, and as a result have stigmatized this symbol of non-violence through the violent extermination of Jews, homosexuals, and other minority groups. In Sanskrit svastika, means “good fortune” or “well-being.”

Today, the swastika has been upheld by factions of white supremacist groups as an emblem for their racist and anti-Semitic ideologies. Similarly, many of these groups display the confederate flag, a symbol with a deeply rooted history of slavery and racism.

Artists use signs and symbols within the context of a piece as a powerful statement. Most frequently, the use of these images are interpreted as liberal or progressive leaning, however there have been some notable exceptions.

Take Charles Krafft for example. He’s a renowned contemporary artist whose work has relied on the use of iconic figures and  symbolism. His work was never thought to pay homage to these figures. It was praised for both it’s delicate craftsmanship and witty satire. However, it became apparent that Krafft’s imagery was darker than it seemed when the artist was linked to an appearance on a White Nationalist podcast.

When Krafft was outed as a sympathizer to white nationalism, the art world that once welcomed him gave him the cold shoulder. There were critical articles written about whether museum’s and collectors should return his works of art in their collection. It is hard to imagine Kraft receiving any support from public arts institutions. It is difficult to separate the author from their work, especially when their work is so personal as is making art. A watercolor by Adolf Hitler, albeit of a serene environment, is tainted by the ugliness of his personal character. One often does not choose or wish to see beauty of it in light of what we know about him. Krafft claims that these symbols of hate are “cliche,” and that “the swastika is just some kitsch piece of popular culture.” He’s made a living selling revisionist imagery of the swastika and its adopter, Adolf Hitler.

On the other hand, the swastika and the confederate flag become powerful imagery for socially engaged artists to address humankind’s grotesqueness and oppression. They seek to redeem humanity over human nature’s atrocities by opening a dialogue that challenges perceptions and often makes us uncomfortable with ourselves. Cliff Joseph was one of the leaders of the protest art movement. Joseph helped found and organize the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, along with Benny Andrews and a number of other seminal African American artists who demanded that the cycle of misrepresentation for black artists be over. A profound painting (seen at the top of this post) by Joseph titled The Superman (1966), features the confederate flag along with other icons of racism.  The symbolism in the work exposes the great white myths that have kept white nationalism alive for so long. In the painting, a figure is adorned with the spoils of white supremacy. This being is clearly a proponent of hate, brutality, and oppression. However, the fading of the figure into an emaciated skeleton suggest that these ideologies are destroying mankind. In Cliff’s painting, the confederate flag feels antiquated and devoid of vigor just like the skeletal figure.

The recent act of terrorism in Charleston, South Carolina has reignited the debate about whether it is right for a State’s government to display the flag (or the different variations of it). While this is an important dialogue to have, it is one that has come to the table many years too late. Generations of hate has existed within segregated communities nationwide. In fact the flag regained its prominence at a time when African Americans were gaining momentum in seeking a just and civil society. While the flag should be removed, the discussion that America needs to have now is one addressing racism without attributing it and using a symbol as a scapegoat. As a society we need to be held accountable for the oppressive actions and discourse that has shaped our contemporary lives.

John Sims, Afro Battle Flag, 2000, nylon flag, 4 x 4 feet

John Sims, Afro Battle Flag, 2000, nylon flag, 4 x 4 feet

John Sims is a contemporary artist who is reclaiming the confederate flag as a symbol of protest and creative resistance. Sims felt uncomfortable with having the flag identify a whole community of southerners including a large African American population. The artist began to appropriate the flag, changing the colors to disarm the oppression that it originally represented. In  Afro Battle Flag (2000), Sims changed the flags colors to symbolize the colors of the African liberation movement.

John Sims, The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag, 2004

John Sims, The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag, 2004

In the piece The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag (2004), Sims displayed the flag of the confederacy from a gallows, recalling the lynchings and brutal killings of African Americans. The work was displayed in Gettysburg, which has huge significance as the location where Abraham Lincoln made his address to the Union during the Civil War. The piece recalled Dread Scott’s What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? (1989), and in the video below, Scott is in Gettysburg at Sims’ installation discussing the connection between the two art works.

Sims recently planned the performative piece 13 Flag Funerals, which began on Memorial Day, where the confederate flag was laid to rest in 13 former confederate states (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri). Sims is calling on other artists and activists to join him in a nationwide confederate flag burning or burying act of creative resistance on July 4th.

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Sonya Clark and others performing her piece "Unraveling," on June 11, 2015. Image Courtesy of Mixed Greens

Another notable reaction addressing the flag is currently on view in the exhibition New Dominion at Mixed Greens gallery in Chelsea. The work titled Unraveling (2015) by the artist Sonya Clark was created during the exhibition’s opening by Clark and others who painstakingly separated strands of the confederate flag by hand. After the collaboration had ended only a small portion of the flag had been dismantled, symbolizing the long uphill battle against racism and inequality in America.

While the court decision around taking down the confederate flag draws to a conclusion, there is one symbolic flag that should be flying high this weekend. On this date, the rainbow flag flew during the 1978 pride parade in San Francisco. The flag was designed by the artist Gilbert Baker who fell in love with the inclusive environment of S.F’s gay cultural scene. The flag was desperately needed as an iconic symbol of pride, and it replaced the pink triangle that had been associated with Hitler’s persecution of homosexuals during the Nazi Regime.

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