Tale of Two Flags: Art Sparks Dialogue
At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, an exhibit called “Posing Beauty” is in its final week.The show features a piece by an African American depicting the confederate and American flags woven in African hair.
Just outside the museum, demonstrators with real confederate flags are far from wrapping up their protest of the VMFA where a pair of confederate flags were removed from the grounds. The artist and the flaggers share a mission: to remind the public of the importance of their heritage.
"They’re honking in support.” Every week that he can, Sydney Lester brings his confederate flag to the Virginia Museum and stakes out a place on the sidewalk.”Last Thursday with almost 100 degrees 99 degrees that’s dedication. I won’t get heat stroke,” he said.
They’re called the Virginia Flaggers - they gather outside the museum, displaying confederate flags and signs. They’re disheartened the museum mandated the removal of a pair of confederate battle flags from the confederate chapel on the grounds. That was more than two years ago, going on three.”They just dishonored everybody when they did that. I want those two flags back up there.”
”It’s a battle flag so it is a very strong emblem.” Artist Sonya Clark created a piece on exhibit at the museum. The work is titled Black Hair Flag. And it’s unmistakably a flag - both Confederate and American. Woven almost entirely in what looks like African hair.“My own husband said ‘Oh that piece is going to get you in trouble,’ and I said well who is it going to get me in trouble with is it going to get me in trouble with the flaggers who are now disappointed that the confederate flag is no longer hanging on the grounds of the museum? They should be happy there’s actually a confederate flag actually in the museum. I have no problem with retracing what our history is, it’s that somewhere in that proclamation there was no discussion of the contributions of African Americans. Frankly it got me a little angry but that’s a good place to make work from sometimes,” said Clark.
The artist says she appreciates any dialogue that her art might create.
“As soon as I corn-rowed the stripes and bantu knotted the stars, the battle flag emerges so those complicated histories get interwoven and that’s what was missing.”
“The perception is if you fly the confederate flag you therefore must be wanting to advocate slavery which is absolutely ridiculous,” says Barry Isenhour, a spokesman for the Virginia Flaggers.
“It is a soldiers flag that was made by the honor of the soldiers and it was and it was a battlefield flag that they died and bled under.”
Today Isenhour visits the memorial chapel, pining for those two missing flags. The chapel is sacred to the flaggers. And it’s owned by the museum and leased to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, for a reasonable rent.
“Well it is for one dollar,” said VMFA Deputy Director Stephen Bonadies. He says it was at lease renewal that the museum told the sons, take down the flags. The museum had conducted extensive research, and determined that a confederate battle flag never historically hung outside the chapel. And there was another consideration.
“When we look at the confederate battle flag I think we need to also understand how its use and significance has changed over time how it’s been appropriated by other groups as a symbol of protest reinforcing segregation and Jim Crow laws.”
“I thought they was racist too until I talked to them. They just grew up in the civil war time that’s just what they believe in. It don’t mean that they’re racist. But some of them are. But it’s regular people that live in your neighborhood and they racist so you gotta talk to people before you judge them.”
"It’s a confederate chapel and I think they have the right to fly the confederate flag and I’m sorry the museum decided to take it down. I also think it was 150 years ago and it’s time to get over it.”
Virginia Flaggers like Sydney Lester and Barry Isenhour plan to keep coming back week after week to the VMFA and not likely for the art.”Put them two flags back up there and the only time they’ll ever see me is when I come down here for a memorial service.”