Vex…a what? The study of flags is known as vexillology, from the Latin word vexillum, meaning flag or banner. A flag is a piece of fabric (most often rectangular or quadrilateral) with a distinctive design that is used as a symbol, as a signaling device, or as decoration. The first flags were used to assist military co-ordination on battlefields, and flags have since evolved into a general tool for rudimentary signaling and identification, especially in environments where communication is similarly challenging (such as the maritime environment where semaphore is used.) National flags are potent patriotic symbols with varied wide-ranging interpretations, often including strong military associations due to their original and ongoing military uses. Flags are also used in messaging, advertising, or for other decorative purposes.
Let’s discuss the development of the design of some flags we’ve been seeing a lot of recently. In fact, let’s get deep into three of the strongest statements flags are making these days. Let’s talk about the Rainbow Pride Flag, the Black Standard Flag being flown by Jihadists, and the Confederate Flag. Then, let’s look at how three Zenith Gallery artists are turning messages of terror, homophobia, racism, and despair UPSIDE down – as they incorporate flags into works of art promoting racial harmony, embracing racial identity, affirming and supporting marriage equality, and finally, making a profound statement about the preciousness of survival in the face of adversary and the enduring nature of American democracy.
From Wikipedia: “The LGBT community has adopted certain symbols for self-identification which demonstrate unity, pride, shared values, and allegiance to one another. LGBTQ symbols communicate ideas, concepts, and identity both within their communities and to mainstream culture. The two most-recognized international LGBTQ symbols are the pink triangle and the rainbow flag. The pink triangle, employed by the Nazis in World War II as a badge of shame, was re-appropriated but retained negative connotations. The rainbow flag was created to be a more organic and natural replacement without any negativity attached to it.”
This summer, Zenith Gallery chooses to celebrate the spirit of the American ideals of democracy, self-expression, justice, truth, social freedom, personal freedom, and true equality. That is to say, our most recent exhibit celebrates and explores the American people and American society that we aspire towards, if not always perfectly achieving. We’re doing this by presenting a two-site exhibit “Stars and Stripes: Zenith Salutes the Flag!” This two-site show features over 20 different artist’s depictions and interpretations of the American flag, in over 60 works of art. This intriguing exhibit was conceived in tandem with the release of the book “Stars and Stripes: The American Flag in Contemporary Art” by E. Ashley Rooney and Stephanie Standish, published by Schiffer Publishing Company. Both our two-site show and this book focus on celebrating how artists have incorporated the colors and symbols in the American flag within their own art, to convey various themes and to play off other motifs and designs.
Flags and Marriage Equality
The recent Supreme Court ruling on the legality of gay weddings is being celebrated across the country, and Zenith could not be more thrilled. To represent the pride and excitement they feel, Americans are ‘waving’ the Rainbow Pride flag. This iconic symbol of gay pride is showing up all over social media, on the evening news, on coffee mugs, and even in attire. You may recall that the original emblem adapted by the Gay Pride movement to represent LGBT culture was the pink triangle? You may also recall that the Nazi party used a pink triangle to label ‘sexual deviants,’ just as the Jews were labeled with a gold star. The evolution from pink triangle to rainbow is interesting, and when you think about it, also makes perfect sense. From Wikipedia: “The LGBT community has adopted certain symbols for self-identification which demonstrate unity, pride, shared values, and allegiance to one another. LGBTQ symbols communicate ideas, concepts, and identity both within their communities and to mainstream culture. The two most-recognized international LGBTQ symbols are the pink triangle and the rainbow flag. The pink triangle, employed by the Nazis in World War II as a badge of shame, was re-appropriated but retained negative connotations. The rainbow flag was created to be a more organic and natural replacement without any negativity attached to it.” Gilbert Baker designed the original, eight-stripe version of the rainbow pride flag in 1978. In late 1978, a seven-stripe version was developed due to a shortage of hot pink fabric at the factories producing the new flag. In 1979, a six-color version was developed, so that the flag would have an even number of stripes and therefore look better when hung vertically on lampposts. In this version, indigo is interchangeable with royal blue. This is the version that has been popular ever since.
Zenith Artist Jennifer Wagner created the mosaic piece “Pride (See Yourself, Be Yourself)” in celebration of the recent Supreme Court decision to legalize LGBT marriage nationwide. Her work was made with a team of youths, some of who identify as transgender, some of whom identify as gay or lesbian. The spirit of working in collaboration to celebrate this profoundly impactful legal decision energized Wagner. To paraphrase Wagner’s explanation of the creation of this piece: ‘how could we not do it? When my team and I heard about the Supreme Court decision, with tears in our eyes, we conceived of a piece that spoke to the struggles and the challenges that led up to the moment when the justices said YES.’ The wording on the piece are as important as her incorporation of the rainbow flag motif:
“This flag is for those who had to hide,
For those who cried,
And for those who died.
See yourself, Be yourself.”
Flags and Terrorism
The “Black Standard” Islamic State flag being flown by the terrorist organization ISIS also comes to mind as a flag that is ‘front and center’ in recent days. The Islamic State flag (aka “Black Standard” or “Black Banner” has existed long before ISIS was established.
In fact, there have been multiple versions of this flag throughout history. Its earliest incarnation can be traced to the advent of Islam in 7th century C.E., where Muhammad allegedly spread his teachings under the Black Standard. He adopted this banner custom from the ancient Romans, who conquered the world under the Aquila, or eagle, banner. Mohammed may have even adopted the eagle name, as early accounts of his conquest cite that he referred to his banner as “the banner of the eagle” also. As various sects of Islam developed throughout the coming centuries, the Black Standard began to stand for various eschatological ideologies. Today it is mostly identified with extremist Sunnism and Jihadism. Islamic tradition states that the Quraysh had a black liwā’ and a white-and-black rāya, and thus the origin of the colors and the symbolic meaning behind them. They represent the Quraysh, a holy text that in turn represents the words of Allah. The Pashtun tradition of using a version of The Black Standard with a white shahada (Islamic creed) inscription as a military ensign, dates back to the 18th-century. It is this version of The Black Standard that was adopted by the Taliban, and thus by Al-Qaeda, in the 1990s. This usage was adopted by the global Jihadism movement in the early 2000s, and in the 2010s by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
In direct opposition to the message embraced by those who wave the Jihadism movement flag, Zenith Gallery artist Dalya Luttwak transformed the colors and shapes found within the design of the American flag into a profound, graceful, and powerful memorial for those who were lost on 9/11.
In her painted steel piece “Tribute to New York City,” Dalya evokes the skyscrapers and the rubble of the World Trade Center attack. Luttwak’s version of the attack…really, it’s a bit like seeing a very simplified model of the aftermath – is far more complex and intriguing than merely a few pieces of painted steel. Let’s look a little more closely at her work. First, color. She’s included the classic American flag palette of red, white and blue. Blue at the base is evocative of both the harbor and the sky (from out of which the planes flew), but it also could represent the holes in the ground and the blackened rubble. White horizontal and vertical planes can be seen to represent both the negative ‘empty’ space where the towers used to be, and also very simplified skyscrapers themselves. They are both ‘there’ and ‘not there.’ Being both ‘there’ and ‘not there’ is what a memorial speaks to, on the human level as well. Finally, red – red is so powerful. In our culture, red represents blood, pain, anger, and savage fury. In our culture, red also represents a different kind of passion – love. Luttwak has achieved a piece that upon closer examination incorporates the strong extreme sense of both loss and presence, passionate pain and passionate love. Perhaps she is suggesting we respond to the fury and the anger of the terrorists with love. Perhaps she is saying love will conquer all? After all, the red is ‘on top’ of the rubble. Whatever your final assessment, you can’t deny the piece is both elegant and eloquent. And, it’s extremely patriotic, but it does not ever feel jingoistic. Quite an achievement – and we are thrilled to showcase this work.
Flags and Racism
Lastly, but certainly not least, there is the infamous Confederate flag. This divisive image has been experiencing a surge in appearances due to recent events that can be added to the long, tangled, sad, and maddening history of slavery and the oppression in these United States. The history of the design of the Confederate flag is interesting. William Porcher Miles, the chairman of the Flag and Seal committee of the Confederate States of America (CSA) government, designed this flag. The now-popular variant of the Confederate flag was rejected as the national flag of the Confederate government in 1861. Instead, the Army of Northern Virginia, under General Robert E. Lee, adopted it as a battle flag. In fact, there were four successive national flag designs that served as the official national flags of the Confederate States of America (the “Confederate States” or the “Confederacy”) during its existence from 1861 to 1865. None of these are what is currently known as the “Confederate flag.”
Despite never having historically represented the CSA as a country, it is commonly referred to as “the Confederate Flag” and has become a widely recognized symbol of the American south and American southern culture. It is also known as the rebel flag or the Dixie flag. The “rebel flag” has therefore become synonymous with plantation culture, the white supremacy movement, conservative neo-separatist political beliefs that romanticize the Civil War era, as a symbol – the culture of slavery within the United States, and the systemic, widespread racist treatment of African Americans throughout our history, including present-day racism. Supporters of the flag claim they are celebrating Southern pride and Southern heritage. Several Southern states have incorporated the rebel flag in their state flag design. A 2011 Pew Research Center poll revealed that 30% of Americans have a “negative reaction” when “they see the Confederate flag displayed.” According to the same poll, 9% of Americans have a positive reaction.
As a result of these varying perceptions, there have been a number of political controversies surrounding the use of the Confederate battle flag at sporting events, at Southern universities, and on public buildings. Southern historian Gordon Rhea further wrote in 2011 that: “It is no accident that Confederate symbols have been the mainstay of white supremacist organizations, from the Ku Klux Klan to the skinheads. The KKK did not appropriate the Confederate battle flag simply because it was pretty. They picked it because it was the flag of a nation dedicated to their ideals: “that the negro is not equal to the white man.” Ideals, incidentally, quoted straight from The Cornerstone Speech, also known as the Cornerstone Address, was an oration delivered by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens at the Athenaeum in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861. The Confederate flag, we are told, represents heritage, not hate.
Why should we celebrate a heritage grounded in hate, a heritage whose self-avowed reason for existence was the exploitation and debasement of a sizeable segment of its population? In fact, we at Zenith Art Gallery REFUSE to participate in this disgusting sham, and we don’t believe it is about ‘heritage…’ unless by ‘heritage’ you mean the systemic abuse of thousands of humans within the horrific lifestyle that is, and was, slavery. We say “is” because we acknowledge that slavery still exists, both abroad and, to a limited extent, here–because, although it is no longer government sanctioned, there are still cases reported each year of individuals found enslaved within the United States.
Messages and symbolic meanings conveyed in flags are often determined by cultural context. One of our artists, Curtis Woody, speaks to his own life experience, as an African American, and through his own lens, manages to express the universal voice of the African America – throughout our history – in the work “Freedom Isn’t Free.” Curtis uses a format he refers to as “quilt” paintings (collage) to incorporate images and text, along side bold graphics and subtle textures, creating a piece that is one part historic record, and one part artistic expression. The delicate lace he has printed over the black profile on the bottom segment reminds us of a person sitting in a parlor behind lace curtains. On the other hand, it also evokes for us the thousands of Africans, and African Americans forced to live lives in a state of illiteracy, anonymity, and oppression. After all, the person in profile lacks any defining features – they are anonymous. Whether this is by choice is indeterminate. Are they a rich white civilian who wishes to remain behind the lace curtains, outside reproach, blissfully ‘ignorant’ of what privilege they enjoy, and at what price? We don’t know.