May Steven's Dark Flag
"Political activity does not interfere with my work, it feeds it. And if I'm interested in racism and fighting racism, then that should show up—will show up—in my work.” - May Stevens
A committed civil-rights activist and feminist, between 1967 and 1976 Stevens produced a series of paintings called Big Daddy, where she addressed and channelled her anger towards her own father's racist views. Painted at the end of that period, Dark Flag marks the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It is however not a celebration, the artists here was casting a critical look at the symbolic value of the star spangled banner and the uglier manifestations of patriotism, nationalism and white supremacy.
I like the haunting ambiguity of this image, I am gripped by its intensity and tension. Three sitting figures shrouded in the American flag. Hard to say whether they are mourning, silently protesting injustice or grieving the loss of something or someone important in their lives.
Forty-five years on, look at how still painfully relevant this work is. How many of these flags against the grey sky have seen on our screens over the past couple of days? They have become the tragic symbol of the violent culmination of years of hateful rhetoric and relentless falsehoods. Fanning old, very old, racial hatred and emboldening racists and bigots. Very dark flags, indeed. And to everyone who has said that what happened on Capitol Hill on January 6th 'is not America', I say: Mate, you have not been paying attention. That IS America.
May Stevens (1924-2019)
Dark Flag, 1976
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
© May Stevens, courtesy the estate of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York