From the time the Continental Congress gave its endorsement to the Stars and Stripes in 1777 in the midst of the American Revolution, the flag of the United States of America has been an iconic symbol of patriotism; an image of national pride displayed in front of homes, waved during parades and solemnly hoisted during ceremonies. But, when flown upside down, burned, or manipulated in color and design, the flag can also send a much more subversive message.
A new exhibition at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, titled “This is Not America’s Flag”, seeks to explore this dichotomy by presenting a series of flag-centric works, questioning what it means to be American today.
A response to the murder of George Floyd
Conceived at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, staff began working on the remote exposure in 2020 as protests erupted following the murder of George Floyd and the deaths of other black Americans in the police hands. As protests unfold just blocks from the museum, Broad’s curator and exhibition director Sarah Loyer said she was motivated “to be more responsive to this moment and what was happening in our city, our country and the world”.
Jasper Johns, “Flag”, (1967). Credit: Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA to Artists Rights Society
Loyer said the team initially focused on two pieces in the collection – Jasper Johns’ 1967 “flag” and David Hammons’ newly acquired 1990 “African American flag“.
Johns painted “Flag” during the height of the Vietnam War protests, incorporating newspaper clippings about the war into a painting of the flag. A few months later, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act of 1968.
Two decades later, the Supreme Court took up a flag desecration case, after a man was arrested for burning an American 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”, reinventing the emblem by replacing the traditional colors with the red, black and green of the Pan-African flag. Loyer said Hammons’ version challenges viewers to ask who is representing the flag. “It’s brilliant in its simplicity,” she said, adding, “it becomes this really iconic piece of art because it always ripples in a patriotic way.”
David Hammons, “African American Flag” (1990). Dyed cotton. The Broad Art Foundation. Credit: David Hammons
After months of discussion, the museum chose a group of 22 artists and their varying interpretations of the flag. The exhibit features historic works such as Dorothea Lange’s photograph of a group of children posing with the flag at a Japanese internment camp in California during World War II and a work by sculptor Betye Saar, 95, which mounts the image of a black world. World War I soldier on a gravestone with an American flag. More contemporary additions include “Extra Value (After Venus)” – a self-portrait of Geneviève Gaignard, who photographed herself in front of the flag in a “Thug Life” T-shirt and with a box of McDonald’s fries in her hand.
A logo for America
The show’s title was inspired by Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s animated billboard, “A Logo for America,” which was first displayed in Times Square in 1987. The artwork made appear images of the United States followed by a map outline of North, South, and Central America in a commentary on the use of the word America to describe the United States.
“I had arrived in 1982 and I was shocked to discover that in the everyday language of people in this country (they) referred to ‘America, America, America’, (but) they don’t weren’t thinking or talking about the continent, they were just talking about the United States,” 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 United States is so powerful, within the continent, it dominates the continent, financially, culturally.”
Alfredo Jaar, “A logo for America” (1987). Credit: Alfredo Jaar/Artists Rights Society
Since the original work was first presented, it has taken on different meanings. According to Jaar, viewers saw the play as an anti-Trump message and a call for more pro-immigration policies. “You create a work. It is shown at a certain moment in the story, in a certain context. Time changes or the context changes and people are starting… to project other ideas. And it’s fine,” he said.
A personal point of view
Some of the most powerful works on display are also the most personal.
Twenty years ago, Songha, the cousin of multimedia artist Hank Willis Thomas, was shot and killed during a robbery outside a Philadelphia nightclub. Thomas transformed his personal tragedy into a series of coins evoking the American flag, but with thousands of stars symbolizing the victims of gun violence.
As the nation reels from yet another tragic shooting, this time in Buffalo, New York, the 2018 piece seems painfully relevant today. Cascading across the museum floor is “15,580,” an installation that Thomas says depicts lives lost.
“They are shooting stars and I wanted to commemorate their lives,” he said. “We haven’t come up with a healthy way of really commemorating them.”
As to why he felt compelled to work with the image of the American flag, Thomas explained, “It means so much to so many different people, it’s important to engage with it and revisit it, reflect on what it means for our society, past, present and future.”
Hank Willis Thomas, “15,580” (2018). Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery
Elsewhere in the exhibit, Wendy Red Star’s installation “The Indian Congress” references a historic meeting of 35 Native American nations in Omaha, Nebraska in 1898. The event coincided with the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, a fair showcasing the country’s agriculture and industry to the world, and as part of the program of events, visitors had the chance to view Congress delegates as if they were some kind of attraction — exploiting Native American people with tours of their encampments and staged re-enactments.
Red Star, a Montana native of Apsáalooke descent, collected historic photographic portraits of the event to display on two long tables, again bringing members of Congress together in a different, more respectful light. But as a reminder of the colonial power game at the time, the display tables are adorned with American flags and patriotic banners. Red Star said the hands-on experience of cutting out each photo and learning each person’s names and stories made it personal to her: “It’s so important for Indigenous peoples and Indigenous voices to be humanized.”
Wendy Red Star, “The Indian Congress” (2021). Technique Mixte. Joslyn Art Museum. Credit: Colin Conces
“What’s important about exhibits like this is that they present history and don’t silence certain narratives, and … I think that might make you even more proud to be an American. It’s extremely important that we don’t forget our history and including our brutality history. This is only going to bring us healing,” said the Red Star.
While the works on display all take a critical look at the flag, patriotism, and what it means to be American, Loyer doesn’t think the artists are being disrespectful.
“When an artist engages the flag, they rely on a supposed knowledge of what the flag may represent. So it’s often about freedom, justice and freedom. I see these works wholeheartedly believe in these concepts…and I also see the works as ways to challenge ourselves, to think more deeply about these topics, to think about history.”
Top image: “Extra Value (After Venus)” by Geneviève Gaignard