While a minority of Americans are in a post-election meltdown over the browning of America, I feel compelled to admit that the part of America that is in a constant state of flux, always shifting, moving, changing, and accepting of the fact that the only things that unite Americans are a few ideas, is what I love about this place. To be American is to be dynamic, maybe even volatile, but never staid. Looking back, to borrow a Biblical allegory, is to turn into salt. I don’t think it’s an accident that the winning Presidential candidate’s slogan this year was “Forward” — that’s the direction we expect from America, even if we’re chronically disappointed.
Sara Rahbar’s Flag series captures some of the energy I love about America. Her objects mine the many veins of her Iranian American cultural heritage to transform the ultimate American icon into something more personal but comforting. In the art works you can see the turmoil boiling inside the artist, nothing perfectly fits, it is a world of contrasts, whether it be colors, textures, or sensibilities, but they work, telling a patchwork story using the flag like a bulletin board.
I am most attracted to the ones in this series that make the field of stars seem a little out of place or incomplete, like “Kurdistan Flag #5” (2007), or hard to see at first, like “Trapped in Dark Night with Nowhere to Run, I Have Died a Million Times Every Night in this Bed” (2010), but as equally garish as the patchwork of strips, objects, and patterns.
Rahbar seems to meditate on the flag like a monk would stare at an icon. “It represents my father and so many, many promises and hopes of tomorrow … It represents endless possibilities, escapes, and mirages … it’s a very loaded image for me,” Rahbar explained. “Years and years of memories, experiences and attachments, and what is the work but a direct reflection of my life? What I’m focusing on, and what is boiling, twisting and turning inside of me.”
If Jasper Johns’ Flag paintings are the obvious allusion, they aren’t ones Rahbar knew about at first. “When I began my Flag series I wasn’t very aware or knowledgeable about Johns or art history in general … it was much latter on that I began to learn more about the art world and art history. Maybe if I had a bit more knowledge about it, I would have never done the series,” she said. “When I began I was completely lost in my own emotional state, it was all very instinctive and emotional for me.”
“And I remember how I worked on one of my first flags. I was traveling from Tehran to Kurdistan with Hossein a very dear friend of mine. He was going to work as a soundman for a film and I was going to photograph Kurdistan and try to figure out my next project and what to do with the rest of my life.”
“We lived in Kurdistan together for months, I would write, take photographs and gather random found objects and textiles that were used for donkeys and horses and sew them onto my flag. I would sit somewhere, sew for a bit, roll up the flag, put it in my backpack, and continue to take photographs, everything was on the go and very natural and in the moment. I worked to work out the turbulence that existed within me; I was healing myself and at the same time communicating an immense pain as I always am with my work. The work is a byproduct of me; emotionally and mentally, it keeps me together. I take care of it and it takes care of me.”
“Looking back now, It was a very natural and instinctive thing for me to do. I didn’t think about it or question it, I just picked up a flag and started to piece things together. I have this deep obsession with piecing and holding things together … maybe I’m afraid things are falling apart around me and by sewing and welding things together, they will stay together … it’s cathartic & very therapeutic for me.”
That need to keep things together is central to the American experiment, namely how a people so diverse can be one — or are we fooling ourselves with some grand delusion?
“There are things that come to mind, incidents like, ‘Salute the flag or else’ or ‘Put the flag up or else.’ It was always forceful and felt like a threat, or perhaps a test. And as time went by it became a question in my mind, questioning this obsession with the flag and ideas of nationally and this need for belonging, to something, to someone or to somewhere,” Rahbar said.
“And then it slowly became my obsession. At first I had a great anger towards the flag, then it became a great curiosity, then an obsession. And after a while I started seeing beauty in it and it made me feel like I had some kind of a love affair with it. I couldn’t stop, but I never expected to make 51 pieces. That’s why I say it was like a love affair because it just went on and on and on until I was finished and complete with it. And love affairs also go on and on and on, until they just don’t anymore. That’s how I work on a series; I do it until I can’t anymore, because I’m just done with it, its instinctual, like love.”