WHAT TO THE AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTIST is the Fourth of July? Is it consumed by fireworks and barbecue or grounded, perhaps, in the words of Frederick Douglass? On July 5, 1852, Douglass gave a historic address in Rochester, N.Y., at an event commemorating the Declaration of Independence. He said in part:

    What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

The speech was sharp commentary, then and now. America’s founding was itself an act of protest but the new nation was far from inclusive. Enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, freedom of speech and expression protects the right to criticize the nation, its leaders and policies. Douglass was brave and profound—giving Black people a voice and taking a stand for the principles of humanity.

When American flags fly on the Fourth of July celebrating the nation’s birth and independence, the familiar red, white, and blue sewn with the ideals of democracy and liberty is a symbol of hope for a more perfect union. It’s also a reminder that when the nation was formed, Black people in America were enslaved and that shameful history continues to cloud widespread progress in 2019.


Creative Time, Pledges of Allegiance: “LaToya Ruby Frazier asks for justice and accountability for the communities in Flint, Michigan, with a flag that is also a clock. The number 1,105 was the exact amount of days Flint residents had lived without new pipes between when lead leaching first took place in Flint and the unveiling of Frazier’s flag on May 3, 2017.” By April 25, 2018, when it the flag was scheduled to be displayed, the number on the flag had risen to 1,462 days. | Photo by Nicholas Prakas via Creative Time


ARTISTS IN THE UNITED STATES and around the world have long used the flag format as a medium to express themselves and make powerful statements about identity, nationality, and the issues they care about.

Sonya Clark uses textiles to examine historic narratives and race and culture issues. Currently based in Amherst, Mass., where she is a professor of art at Amherst College, several of her projects have been inspired by flags—the Confederate flag, American flag, and Kente flag.

In Philadelphia, Clark is presenting “Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know,” which focuses on the Confederate Flag of Truce. The flag is a plain dishcloth that played a critical role in ending the Civil War, serving as the South’s flag of surrender at Appomattox in spring 1865. The cloth “brokered peace and represented the promise of reconciliation.” In the exhibition at The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Clark documents the ubiquity of the Confederate flag and the hate and division it represents and propagates and wonders how the nation’s narrative and reckoning with history may have been influenced had Truce Flag taken hold instead.

New York-based Creative Time recently organized a nationwide public art project utilizing the flag as a medium for protest, pride, and social commentary. “Pledges of Allegiance” (2017-18) commissioned 16 artist-designed flags that, in succession, flew above Creative Time’s headquarters in New York City’s East Village and a variety of cultural institutions throughout the United States.

“We realized we needed a space to resist that was defined not in opposition to a symbol, but in support of one, and so we created a permanent space. The flag seemed an ideal form to build that space around both practically and symbolically,” Nato Thompson, then-artistic director of Creative Time, said on the nonprofit’s webste.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Nari Ward, and Jayson Musson, were among the participating artists. Frazier’s flag focused on the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and was on display at 17 institutions including the 21C Museum Hotel in Durham, N.C., Atlanta Contemporary, MASS MoCA, and RISD Museum, from April 25-May 16, 2018. The closest site to Flint was the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.


FAITH RINGGOLD, “The Flag is Bleeding #2 (American Collection #6),” 1997 (acrylic on canvas, painted and pieced border). | © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Private collection, Courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London


FOR MORE THAN 50 YEARS, Faith Ringgold has used the flag as a point of reference to explore race relations and the state of black America. Her quilt, “The Flag is Bleeding #2” (1997) is currently displayed at Serpentine Galleries in London. On view through Sept. 8, the exhibition is Ringgold’s first at a European institution.

David Hammons produced his “African American Flag” (1990) in red, black, and green, referencing the colors of the Pan-African flag of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. The flag is in the collections of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Museum of Modern Art, Pizzuti Collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, and The Broad in Los Angeles, where the new acquisition was announced in June.

British artist Chris Ofili had a similar take on the Union Jack flag. His work, “Union Black,” reimagined the design of the British flag in red, black, and green and was installed outside Victoria Miro Gallery in 2016 on the occasion of the group exhibition titled “Protest.” Exploring political and social issues, the show featured gallery artists Ofili, Wangechi Mutu, Isaac Julien, Yayoi Kusama, Alice Neel, and Kara Walker, among others.

Also in 2016, in the wake of video footage bringing greater awareness of black men being killed by police, Dread Scott flew his “A Black Man was Killed by Police Today” flag outside Jack Shainman Gallery in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. More recently, Adam Pendleton displayed his “Black Dada Flag (Black Lives Matter)” high atop a flag pole at last year’s Frieze New York. It remained installed through November 2018 (see video at top of page).

Paris-based (S)ITOR Gallery presented a monumental flag by Nú Barreto of Guinea Bissau (a tiny country under Senegal) at the 2017 edition of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in New York. Titled “Disunited States of Africa” (2010), the red, black, green, and yellow tarp-like canvas was inspired by the design and concept of the American flag.


Installation view of the Whitney Biennial 2019 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 17-September 22, 2019). From left, ERIC N. MACK, “Proposition: for wet Gee’s Bend Quilts to replace the American flag – Permanently,” 2019; JENNIFER PACKER, Untitled, 2019; JENNIFER PACKER, “An Exercise in Tenderness,” 2017; JENNIFER PACKER, Untitled, 2019; JENNIFER PACKER, and “A Lesson in Longing,” 2019. | Photograph by Ron Amstutz, Courtesy Whitney Museum


THE MOST RECENT EDITIONS of the Whitney Biennial have featured symbolic flags and banners. Using textiles, New York-based Eric N. Mack works at the intersection of painting and sculpture. The 2019 show at the Whitney Museum of American Art is currently showcasing assembled works by Mack, including “Proposition: for wet Gee’s Bend Quilts to replace the American flag — Permanently.”

Two years ago, multidisciplinary artist Cauleen Smith created “In the Wake,” a series of banners for the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The works feature phrases such as “I have nothing left,” “I cannot be fixed,” “I am so black that I blind you,” and “Pigeons are black doves.”

A selection of the banners are currently on view at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass., where “Cauleen Smith: We Already Have What We Need,” the Los Angeles-based artist’s most comprehensive exhibition to date, is on view through April 2020.

Smith indicates that rather than making grand political gestures, art with a more interpersonal appeal has the potential to be transformational.

“The thing about art, and the reason why these banners don’t make political statements, they make effective statements, is because art is about just you, or you, or you. It’s just, one person can read a banner that says ‘Leave me for the crows’ and they are arrested just for a second, because maybe they know what that means to them. Maybe that just opens something up in them, for a moment, so that their humanity can emerge beyond the political,” Smith says in a Whitney video made about the biennial.

“I’m really fascinated by those kinds of gestures that aren’t didactic, political kind of like statements about what I want or what I need or what I want to change, but are much more about how do I see you and how do you see me.” CT


WATCH James Earl Jones recite Frederick Douglas’s Fourth of July speech

READ MORE about Frederick Douglas’s “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” speech (transcript)


FIND MORE about David Hammons’s “African American Flag” here and here on Culture Type

FIND MORE About Sonya Clark’s “Unraveling” the Confederate Flag project on Culture Type


CAULEEN SMITH (b. 1967), Installation view of “In the Wake,” 2017 (satin, poly-satin, quilted pleather, upholstery, wool felt, wool velvet, indigo-dyed silk-rayon velvet, indigo-dyed silk satin, embroidery floss, metallic thread, acrylic fabric paint, acrylic hair beads, acrylic barrettes, satin cord, polyester fringe, poly-ilk- tassels, plastic-coated paper, and sequins, Sixteen components: 60 × 48 inches / 152.4 × 121.9 cm each). | Collection of the artist, Courtesy Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and Kate Werble Gallery, New York. Photograph by Bill Orcutt. Sewed by: Keeley Haftner, Elgee King, Jinn Bronwen Lee, Kate S. Lee, Elizabeth Van Loan, April Martin, Nicole Mauser, Magritte Emanuel Nankin, Carolina Poveda, Darling Shear, Danielle Wordelman via Whitney Museum


SONYA CLARK in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, “oven replica of the Confederate Flag of Truce,” 2019. | Photo credit by Carlos Avendaño, Fabric Workshop and Museum


Installation view of CHRIS OFILI, “Union Black,” 2003 for “Protest” exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery, London, 2016


Creative Time, Pledges of Allegiance: “Jayson Musson works in the productive gap between high and low culture. Musson’s flag is text-based art, forcing the viewer to engage in an all too real comment on our political present.” | Photo by Nicholas Prakas via Creative Time


Creative Time, Pledges of Allegiance: “The flag designed by NARI WARD references Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) flag combined with an African prayer symbol known as a Congolese Cosmogram, representing birth, life, death and re-birth. Several of these hole patterns are drilled into the floorboard of one of the oldest African American churches in the United States (The First Baptist Church, Savannah Georgia). It is believed that the pattern functioned as breathing holes for runaway slaves hiding under the floor, awaiting safe transport north.” Ward writes, “the union of that moment and of Garvey’s black nationalist flag acknowledge the resilience of the human spirit to survive even as we continue the need to remind America that Black Lives Matter.” | Photo by Nicholas Prakas via Creative Time


Flag by artist DREAD SCOTT on display in front of Jack Shainman Gallery on July 8, 2016. | © Dread Scott. Photo courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery


FAITH RINGGOLD, “Black Light Series #10 Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger,” 1969 (oil on canvas). | Courtesy of ACA Galleries NYC


Faith Ringgold’s “Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger” was displayed at ACA Galleries in New York in 2013, featured in her traveling exhibition “American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s.” The painting is now in the collection of Glenstone, the private museum in Potomac, Md.


Sitor Senghor of (S)ITOR Gallery talks about “Disunited States of Africa” by NU BARRETO, 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair New York 2017. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine


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