What does it mean to be American?
That is the question posed by ‘This Is Not America’s Flag,” a limited-run exhibition, which opened May 21 at The Broad museum, aimed at exploring the idea of American identity and challenges through one specific icon – the U.S. flag.
This exhibit, named for the piece “A Logo For America,” by political artist Alfredo Jaar, features works from more than 20 artists, all of which use the image of the American flag to delve into issues of identity from a wide variety of perspectives. Through the lenses of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, political alignment, geography and more viewpoints, all of these pieces attempt to redefine what exactly the flag means in their own voice.
As the exhibit’s curator and exhibitions manager Sarah Loyer says in her accompanying essay, this is an exhibit that arose after the racial reckonings of the summer of 2020. Shortly after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Black Americans, the art world shifted to discuss its hand in institutionalized racism and colonization.
“White supremacy is systemic, insidiously woven into the fabric of our nation, and it exists across our institutions—including our museums. It can sometimes be difficult to see because it shows up in so many different forms,” Loyer wrote to Ampersand. “When planning this show, I was thinking about how works are often positioned within art historical narratives based on assumptions and stereotypes about an artist’s background and trying to push against that.”
This particular exhibit is unique in that it stems from a conversation between members of the Broad’s curatorial staff about two pieces that were already within The Broad’s collection: Jasper Johns’ “Flag,” a 1967 piece painted after Johns was discharged from the U.S. army, and “African American Flag,” a 1990 piece by David Hammons that uses the colors of the Pan-African flag to reinvent the American flag.
Loyer said that she used these two pieces as guiding lights for the rest of the exhibit, as they both came at a time “when [American] politics became polemical and polarized—much as they are today.”
It’s clear why these two pieces were able to act as anchors for the rest of the exhibition. Conversations surrounding “Flag” are shrouded in conversations about American identity following the Cold War and its byproducts like the Red Scare and fear of homosexuality, as Loyer writes.
“African American Flag,” as it’s used in this exhibit, acts as an emblem for the question of what it means to be American. Hanging from the ceiling, this massive banner uses the pattern of the traditional U.S. flag but replaces the traditional colors with green, red and black. Many critics argue that this piece explores the dichotomy of what it actually means to be Black in America. Their community is strong and flourishing within our country, but at the same time, many do not feel that they fit the traditional, oftentimes white, mold that Americans are expected to fit into. Much like “African American Flag,” many pieces in this exhibit explore American identity through a unique racial lens, and it becomes clear how complex the experience of being nonwhite and American is.
Prominently displayed in one of the first rooms of this exhibition is Stephanie Syjuco’s “Phantom Flag.” Made solely from gray chiffon, this translucent flag uses the silhouette of the American flag and turns it into a ghostly figure. As the gallery’s brief explanation asserts, “[t]he flag denotes at once a sense of patriotic pride as well as the loss of American dreams.” This piece serves the exhibition as a general reminder of the tragedy and loss that comes with being an American, particularly in the wake of the violence and oppression the exhibit aims to explore.
Hank Willis Thomas’ 2021 piece “America” is one of the most politically striking works in the exhibit. Using cut up pieces of the flag, Thomas creates red lettering on a white background to spell out the word “America” in quilt format. As the gallery points out, this piece was originally shown alongside pieces made from prison uniforms, and it aims to show how the American ideal of freedom can be so easily stripped away.
“This is Not America’s Flag” takes the time to highlight the difficulties so many groups face in their attempt to survive as Americans. The pieces featured in the exhibit serve as a radical reminder of just how exclusionary American culture is and how easily the American dream can be stripped away from so many.
“This is Not America’s Flag” is open to the public during all operating hours until Sept. 25th, and requires a ticket not included in the price of admission to attend, which can be purchased for $18 for adults, $12 for students with valid student ID, and free for children 17 and under. Tickets can be purchased online at ticketing.thebroad.org.