KANSAS CITY, Missouri — Atop the H&R Block ArtSpace at Kansas City Art Institute, the Refugee Flag flies high on a large vertical billboard. Its expanse of orange is interrupted by a black band across its lower third, recalling the life jackets worn by those crossing the Mediterranean.
Yara Said, a Syrian-born artist who has found a home in Amsterdam since fleeing Damascus in 2015, designed the flag for the 10 refugee athletes from around the world, including Syria but also the Congo, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, to carry in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. In Kansas City, the flag is shown staked on a beach, the rolling waves of the ocean behind it. Though the Midwest city, so far from any actual ocean, is not an official sanctuary city, the image of the flag signals that refugees are welcome at ArtSpace.
Inside, the exhibition State of the World unfolds a complex dialogue about the symbolic, physical, conceptual, and material nature of the flag. Immediately after the result of the 2016 American presidential election was announced, Raechell Smith, curator and director of the H&R Block ArtSpace, called an international assembly of artist together to stage a conversation that advocates for cultural pluralism in a climate of nationalism. Works by the Russian collaborative Komar & Melamid, Georgia Papageorge of South Africa, and more join those by Americans Vito Acconci, Sonya Clark, Allison Smith, Mike Sinclair, and James Woodfill in the exhibit. Notably, many artists enact the border-crossing phenomenon of the international contemporary art world, though each for very different reasons. Moroccan Mounir Fatmi currently works in Paris, as do the British and Argentinian–born duo Lucy and Jorge Orta, and Belgian-born Edith Dekyndt is based in Berlin. The exhibition is an early response to a question many of us are currently trying to answer: How can we use our chosen medium, whether art, exhibitions, or writing, to meaningfully address the changing state of the world?
Sonya Clark tackles the complicated history of the United States in her two contributions to the exhibition. In “Unraveled” (2015), the efforts of the artist and a community of participants who helped her unravel the Confederate flag knot by knot have resulted in three piles: one red, one white, one blue. For “Gele Kente Flag” (1995), Clark has interwoven the American flag with swaths of Kente cloth, the brilliantly colored fabric of West Africa, in the colors of the Pan-African flag. When considered together, the gesture to integrate the American and Pan-African flags reads as one of reparation, especially once Clark added a performative dimension by asking 50 African American women to wear the integrated flag as a gele, the traditional headwrap of Nigeria.
Allison Smith, whose work has long considered the less-glorious and often forgotten parts of American history alongside its craft traditions, created a new work for the exhibition. To make “A Hatespun Flag: The Prepper’s Blindspot” (2017), Smith searched the internet for images, objects, and narratives used in reenactments of the American Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Digitally printed onto fabric and then fashioned into a quilt by the artist, these contemporary objects with nostalgic impulses reveal the survivalist and apocalyptic undercurrents of reenactment culture and its reclamation of craft culture. Among the objects are sticks of dynamite, Molotov cocktails in bottles, pieces of flint, and kindling materials, like newspaper and branches, reminding the audience that the Revolutionary War was a fight against tyranny. Smith’s installation finds a counterpart in another kind of endurance performance: when she read pacifist Gene Sharp’s “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action” to an audience of Kansas City Art Institute students the week immediately following the election.
Pedro Lasch, a Mexican, German, and Austrian citizen, also became a U.S. citizen on January 20, 2017, inauguration day. Abstract Nationalism & National Abstraction, an ongoing project since 2001, evidences the multiplicity of his perspective. Each of four videos features four voices — soprano, tenor, alto, and bass — each singing a different country’s national anthem in the language of the country that comes after it in an alphabetical list. So, for example, the national anthem of the United States is sung in Spanish, the official language of Uruguay — a particularly loaded switch, given the contentious place of the Spanish language within the context of the United States and the requirement of American immigrants to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in English. The reformatted anthem may allow some American citizens the opportunity to hear it in their native language for the first time. In “The Lost Spring” (2011), Mounir Fatmi gathers the 22 flags of the Arab league together, draping them in a neat, orderly row along a wall. The flags of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt are affixed to pushbrooms, an aesthetic pun that turns the Arab Spring of 2011 into a kind of “spring cleaning,” as these three countries all removed their leaders from power as a result of democratic uprisings.
Edith Dekyndt, whose work will be featured in the upcoming Venice Biennial, contributes “One Second of Silence (Part 01, New York)” (2008), a nearly 20-minute video that focuses on the movements of a white, nearly transparent flag against the backdrop of an overcast sky. The flag virtually disappears at times, as it whips back and forth along the pole’s axis. Without color or patterning, Dekyndt’s flag reads as tabula rasa: a blank slate for a world without borders in which everyone is welcome.
State of the World continues at H&R Block ArtSpace at Kansas City Art Institute (16 East 43rd Street, Kansas City) through March 18.