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Controversial Takes On The Stars And Stripes Explored In New Exhibit

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This red, black and green version of the flag by artist Louis Cameron is just one of the 100-plus objects included in "For Whom It Stands."
The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture
This red, black and green version of the flag by artist Louis Cameron is just one of the 100-plus objects included in "For Whom It Stands."

The United States flag and national anthem have both served as inspiration for all sorts of artists and musicians over the years. But some interpretations of these beloved elements of American culture have been pretty controversial.

Those interpretations — and the reactions they inspired — are the focus of a new exhibit at Baltimore's Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. “For Whom It Stands” includes artifacts, photographs, music, art and documents dating from the Revolutionary War to the present. Curated by Dr. Michelle Joan Wilkinson, it explores the history of the flag, what it means to different people, and who has staked a claim to the flag and national anthem over the years.

Unsung takes on the flag

The exhibition is inspired by Grace Wisher, a 13-year-old African-American indentured servant who helped sew the Star-Spangled Banner flag in Mary Pickersgill’s household in Baltimore.

The huge flag that young Wisher helped sew later flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem that would later become the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Associate Curator Asantewa Boakyewa says Wisher’s is a story that generally flies under the radar.

“So we want to think about, well why is that?” she says. “Why don't we know that this young African-American helped to create this national icon that’s on display at the National Museum of American History and will be for perpetuity?”

Boakyewa says that legacy led museum staff to seek out other works of art and communities that haven’t had their stories told in the public sphere. She says the goal is that unveiling these untold stories will lead to more inclusive conversations and more inclusive thinking about who we are as a nation, where we've been, and where the nation is going.

Most of the pre-WWII era objects in the exhibit are military-related and reflect more traditional uses of the flag.

“We have for the first time on view a collection of minority military artifacts that is part of the museum’s permanent collection,” she says. “We have a military uniform from WWI. Also a soldier’s helmet that’s painted with the United States flag and the French flag, harkening back to that history and relationship during the first World War, and we also have military pins, photographs, pamphlets and also an historical book on African-Americans in the Revolutionary War.”

But Boakyewa says that after WWII ended, things get a bit more creative.

“So whether that’s painting it upside down, or creating sculptures that are abstract or made out of unique materials or printing it on beer cans and posters, how diverse this very iconic and familiar object is,” she says.

A suite of photographs taken by during the 1940s by Gordon Parks hangs on one wall of the exhibit.

“Gordon Parks obviously is a very well-known African-American photographer who created the now-famous image ‘American Gothic,’ which is a picture of an African-American woman holding a broom and a mop in front of the United States flag,” Boakyewa says.

That iconic photograph is flanked by other black-and-white images depicting the same female subject, but in different surroundings. Boakyewa says the rarely-seen suite of photos gives some context to the story, who this woman was and why Parks decided to include the flag in her portrait.

“Her name was Ella Watson,” she says. “She was a government cleaning woman in Washington, D.C. and she lived in Northwest with her daughter and grandchildren who she supported on a salary of about $1,000 per year.”

Boakyewa says the image is a commentary on labor, race and inequality.

“It’s a very sort of layered image, though simple visually,” she says. “There’s a lot of sort of political, social-economic messages that can be gleaned from that.”

In the 1950s, American artist Jasper Johns created his first series of flag paintings using non-traditional materials such as newsprint and wax. Boakyewa says this set off a new trajectory of artists taking liberties with the way the flag is portrayed.

“What Jasper Johns did, why it’s important and why it’s a turning point is because he sort of, if you will, took apart a traditional object and recreated it in an unusual, non-traditional way,” she says.

Boakyewa says if you look at it against the backdrop of McCarthy-era politics, when holding alternative viewpoints landed many Americans, including numerous artists, in the hot seat, this was a pretty provocative move.

“When we think about the 1950s, we think about conformity and protocol and things being done in a certain way,” she says.

Helen Zughaib's "Prayer Rug for America" is one example of flag-inspired artwork that reflects the diversity of the American people. (Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture)

Redefining the flag

A section in the exhibit called “Courting Controversy” draws attention to artists who have made direct challenges to the flag, what it means and who it belongs to. One of those rebels is an artist and activist named Faith Ringgold.

“She’s an African-American artist, painter, quilter and in 1970, she and two other artists organized an art exhibition called The People’s Flag Show,” Boakyewa says. The exhibit was held at the Judson Memorial Church in New York City, and Ringgold created a poster for the event that now hangs in the Courting Controversy section of For Whom It Stands.

Modeled after the American flag, the somewhat-faded red poster lists details about the exhibit in the upper-left corner, where the stars would usually be. The stripes are actually words that say, “the American people are the only people who can interpret the American flag, a flag which does not belong to the people to do with as they see fit, should be burned and forgotten. Artists, workers, students, women, third-world peoples—you are oppressed. What does the flag mean to you?”

The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that flag desecration laws are unconstitutional. But that wasn't the case in 1970.

As a consequence of organizing this exhibition, Faith Ringgold and the other artists who organized it with her were jailed,” says Boakyewa. The trio was dubbed “The Judson 3.”

But the arrest didn’t stop Ringgold from putting her own artistic spin on the flag. A year later, she created a silkscreen print titled “The Judson 3” that is also part of the exhibit.

“It again is in the design of the United States flag, but instead of red, white and blue, it’s red, black and green,” Boakyewa says. “Now, red, black and green are colors of what is called the ‘African-American flag,’ and it speaks to pan-African movement, which expressed sort of freedom and unity amongst peoples of African descent.”

Another example of culture-blending art is a piece by Helen Zughaib

“It is…an Islamic prayer rug fashioned with the colors and the stripes of the United States flag,” Boakyewa says. “So she’s dealing with her sort of hyphenated identity as an Arab and as an American and how does that fit into the events of 9/11 and then post-9/11 atmosphere in the country, and her interpretation or take on it is really that this is a painting for healing.”

She says the piece touches on art’s power to start difficult conversations, which also come into play when discussing some of the more controversial interpretations of the national anthem. Baltimore-based beatboxer and musician Shodekeh curated the musical portion of the exhibit.

“The first half of my mission was to uncover some of the more, I guess you could refer to them as culturally-alternative perspectives regarding the musical flag, the national anthem, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” he says.

He settled on 15 different renditions of the song, and says he focused on examples that stem from the experiences of minority groups, such as African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans--one version is sung in Lakota.

“In regards to the larger cultural zeitgeist of the American flag and the National Anthem, these are stories that go largely untold,” he says, “so I wanted to see if I could find other songs that implemented some elements of protest perhaps or implemented some elements of personalizing the American flag, not just for themselves, but for a larger public and for the listeners of these various renditions.”

Efforts brought together for visitors

Using a touchscreen, visitors can play clips of a variety of performances, including Jimi Hendrix’s famous 1969 instrumental version of the national anthem, which he played at Woodstock. Visitors can also watch a television interview with Hendrix, explaining why he didn't feel the performance was controversial or wrong.

Shodekeh says he wanted to build on that legacy by linking other performances together in the exhibit.

“Most people don't know that there is a link to Jimi Hendrix playing the anthem and then to Michael Winslow doing it all with his voice as Jimi Hendrix played it, almost note-for-note exactly,” he says. “It’s just my way of saying that there’s a much larger conversation to be had regarding the national anthem.”

Baltimore’s own Ethel Ennis is also included. Shodekeh says she was the first to sing the anthem acapella for a presidential inauguration. In 1973, Ennis sang at Richard Nixon’s inauguration without the traditional, full military band.

“She refused orchestral accompaniment because she wanted to depoliticize her rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and she felt that the only way she could do that is if she sang it all by herself, unaccompanied,” Shodekeh says.

Another, much more controversial performance came from the lips of jazz vocalist René Marie. In 2008, just before Denver’s State of the City address, City Council President Michael Hancock welcomed Marie to the stage to sing the national anthem, which she did, but not with the words people expected.

"She took the lyrics of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ the African-American cultural national anthem, and sang it to the tune of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,” he says.

Shodekeh says he thinks there is a larger, default culture that has absorbed the way the national anthem is shared and observed. “But within that relationship there are these other indispensable stories and takes on it, so let’s listen to what they have to say and let’s break up this larger default culture of the anthem and the flag as much as possible.”

In September, Shodekeh will demonstrate his vocal percussion skills by performing a new interpretation of the National Anthem alongside improvisational hip hop group Baltimore Boom Bap Society and Classical Revolution, a collective of classically-trained musicians.

For Whom It Stands will be on view through February at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore’s inner harbor, which is just a short walk from the house that Grace Wisher lived and worked in, The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House.

Music: "My Country Tis of Thee" by Jazzooo/Doug Robinson from Two Days in November

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