The Medium is the Message: Flags and Banners

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The Medium is the Message: Flags and Banners April 10 – October 23, 2022 WENDE MUSEUM



The Medium is the Message: Flags and Banners Flags have been used by most human civilizations since ancient times as symbols of political, religious, and military group identity. But only since the late eighteenth century with the rise of the nation-state did they start to represent large geographical territories. Like monuments and national anthems, they aim to create a sense of identity based on a shared past, present, and future. Like many other countries, communist states of the twentieth century produced an abundance of flags and banners, using a variety of graphic symbols and color codes. They were omnipresent at military parades, sporting events, and public gatherings. Apart from national flags, many state-owned companies and governmental organizations commissioned their own richly decorated flags and banners. The Wende Museum holds over 2,000 of these ornamental textiles in its collection. While these flags might have been paraded during annual May Day celebrations or displayed publicly on other special occasions, they were typically exhibited indoors in showcases or on flagpoles located on the grounds of the companies and organizations they represented. Conceived as state gifts to these companies and organizations, they were produced by specialized textile workshops, with a wide range from relatively simple cotton flags to richly decorated satin and velvet ones. For decades, artists have repurposed flags to change or subvert their original meaning. Protestors and counterculture movements worldwide have capitalized on their strong symbolic value and identity-shaping qualities. The Medium is the Message combines Cold War-era political flags from communist countries along with a playful appropriation by the Soviet hippie movement. In addition, contemporary works by artists from different countries offer critical reflections on the here and now. Alongside flags from the Wende collection, the exhibition presents contemporary work referencing flags and banners from Fiona Amundsen on the topic of surveillance; Rufina Bazlova, whose political digital drawings and embroideries went viral within the Belarusian pro-democracy movement; Carolina Caycedo, committed to social and environmental justice reforms; Renée Petropoulos, whose multi-nation flags subvert the associations of national identity; Lara Schnitger, working at the intersection of art and activism; Cauleen Smith, whose banners address the social realities of Black women in the U.S.; Anna Sokolova, presenting abstract studies in light; Cole Sternberg, whose project “Free State of California” dreams about an alternative future; and Molly Surazhsky, whose textile work critically reflects on modern-day capitalism. The exhibition also presents works by the Polish-American artist Jan Sawka (1946–2012). Beginning in 1968, when he took part in mass student protests across Poland, Sawka used propaganda as a medium for artistic resistance, specifically through banners. He continued exploring this form throughout his career, especially around the time of the collapse of communism in the Soviet Bloc when he developed monumental banner-painting hybrids on loose canvas that reflected on the twentieth-century history of Poland. The Medium is the Message: Flags and Banners is organized by Joes Segal and Anna Rose Canzano, with support from Jamie Kwan, Courtney Lamb, and Jane Friedman. Special thanks to Annie Platoff, Ed Birce, Tommy Bui, Anikó Imre, Miles Li, Hanna Sawka, Vera Kopecky, Sasha Razor, and the participating artists. The exhibition is generously supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Cotsen Foundation for Academic Research.

Photo: Esteban Schimpf

Photo: Esteban Schimpf

Photo: Esteban Schimpf

Photo: Esteban Schimpf

Collections Flags

Ministry for State Security Berlin District flag, n.d., satin, East Germany

Cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov flag, 1968, cotton, East Germany

FDJ (Free German Youth) best organization in preparation for the World Festival banner of honor, 1970s, satin, East Germany

Communist Youth League Chapter of Pecs Coal Works flag, 1957, jacquard satin, Hungary

Romanian Union of Working Youth (UTM) flag from the 3rd World Festival of Youth and Students, 1951, velvet, Romania

Vietnamese Youth Union flag, gifted to the East German youth movement FDJ, 1967, satin, Vietnam

Cleanest Locomotive Fleet award flag for Halle District, n.d., cotton, East Germany

Flag gifted to East Germany from China for electric industry support, velvet, 1956, China Honorary flag for the Rostock District Board of the VdgB (Peasants’ Mutual Aid Association), n.d., cotton, East Germany

Halle District competition-winning award flag for the Seven Year Plan, ca. 1959–65, cotton, East Germany

Mao Zedong banner, 1968, cotton, China

BSG (Company Sports Club) Eisenhüttenstadt Steel Factory flag, post-1961, cotton, East Germany

“All Power to the Working People!” flag, n.d., jacquard fabric, Hungary

Academy of Sciences of the GDR Sports Club Berlin flag, n.d., satin, East Germany

Union Western Geophysical Trust flag, n.d., velvet; Soviet Union

All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions competitionwinning flag, 1985, velvet, Soviet Union

Central Committee of the Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) annual award for work flag, n.d., velvet, Soviet Union

Shpakovsky District Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) flag, post-1956, velvet, Soviet Union

DAV (German Anglers Association) DDR flag, n.d., satin, East Germany

Deutsche Volkspolizei (German People’s Police) flag, n.d., satin; silver thread, East Germany

Leadership in Exports flag for the Vratsa District, n.d., silk, Bulgaria

Lithuanian Volunteer Fire Rescue flag, n.d., satin, Lithuania

World Federation of Democratic Youth flag, n.d., satin, France

Construction Industry BSG (Company Sports Association) Frankfurt (Oder), n.d., satin, East Germany

BRPSH (Labor Youth Union of Albania) flag, 1956, satin, Albania

Competition-winning flag for the anniversary of the GDR, n.d., satin, East Germany

Best Farm of the Year flag for Harju District, velvet, Estonia

Nové Strašeci district workers’ flag celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, 1957, satin, Czechoslovakia

Czechoslovakian railway flag, n.d., satin, Czechoslovakia

UJC (Union de Jovenes Comunistas/Young Communist League of Cuba’s Communist Party) flag, n.d., cotton, Cuba Viet Cong flag, 1966, satin, Vietnam

After the brutal dispersal of an open-air exhibition by non-conformist artists in Moscow in 1974 and the subsequent Western media outcry, the city government decided to allow two exhibitions by non-conformists. The second of these took place in September 1975 in the House of Culture and involved the hippie art collective Volosy (The Hair Group). Under the leadership of Sveta Barabash, alias Ofelia, a handful of hippie artists provided paintings and other artwork. Ofelia herself tailored a large hippie flag in red silk, which sported several hippie slogans in English and Russian. Just as the exhibition was about to open, the flag, along with a few other artifacts, was confiscated by the authorities because of its inscription: “Country Without Borders.” The artists refused to open the exhibition until all items were returned. Ofelia tailored a new flag overnight with an inscription Volosy (The Hair Group), Soviet hippie flag, 1975, Soviet Union. Recreated by Debra Marlin, 2018, denim; various fabric; pom poms; bells, based on archival photograph, United States

that now read “World Without Borders.” Volosy never exhibited as an art collective again. Ofelia died in 1993 from a drug overdose. The whereabouts of the flag, if it still exists, remains unknown.

Ukrainian Insurgent Army Banners The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), active between 1942 and 1949, was engaged in guerilla warfare against the Soviet Union, Communist Poland, and Nazi Germany as the military arm of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists - Bandera. Its aim was a free and autonomous Ukraine, independent from the Soviet Union. Like many groups in the region at the time, the group had a fiercely nationalist and xenophobic faction. At the start of World War II, parts of UPA supported the Nazis in their fight against the Soviet Union. UPA changed course in 1943 and started to advocate for freedom of speech and thought. In 1944, UPA officially rejected all “racial and ethnic exclusivity.” After World War II, the militia continued to fight the People’s Republic of Poland until 1947 and the Soviet Union until 1949. The organization was infiltrated by Soviet agents and subsequently fully dismantled and killed off in the late 1940s. The four banners in this exhibition were seized by the Soviet army and are among only six known remaining regimental banners of the UPA. Some of them show pieces of camouflage from captured Nazi uniforms and tents that were used to stitch holes. The Soviet Union kept these pieces in a secret KGB archive that was decommissioned in the 1990s. The Wende Museum acquired them in 2002.

Ukrainian Insurgent Army, ca. 1942-1949, cotton, Ukraine

The words “Long Live” reference the folk song “Long Live Free Ukraine.”

UPA [Ukrainian Insurgent Army] – Long Live, ca.19421949, cotton, Ukraine

This flag contains pieces of a Nazi military tent.

First Unit, ca. 1942-1949, cotton and linen, Ukraine

God with Us, ca. 1942-1949, cotton, Ukraine

Contemporary Art Jan Sawka (1946–2012) was an artist belonging to the “generation of 1968” of Polish artists and writers opposed to the communist regime. He was forced into exile in 1976, and emigrated to the United States in 1977. A multidisciplinary artist, he achieved recognition in graphic design, painting, set design, multimedia, and architecture. He grappled with the visual propaganda of repressive systems throughout his life, starting with the banners he created for protests against the communist state’s “Anti-Zionist” campaign of 1968. During the revolutions of 1989, Sawka created paintings that appropriated the propaganda-banner format to address the revolutions and violence of the oppressors. In 1992, Poland, having just freed itself from a Soviet-controlled regime, had its first opportunity to be represented on its own terms at a World Exposition. The new Minister of Culture, Marek Rostworowski, requested an installation from Sawka for the Polish Pavilion at the 1992 World Expo in Seville. Sponsorship for the shipment of the works was provided by The Grateful Dead’s Rex Foundation, after Sawka had created a monumental art installation for the band’s stadium concerts. The installation, entitled My Europe, consists mainly of large banner-paintings addressing the devastation of war and occupation, yet culminating in the promise of hope and recovery.

Jan Sawka, The Soviet Flag, 1991, acrylic on loose canvas, wooden rod, Polish-American. Courtesy of the Jan Sawka Estate

Jan Sawka created multiple artworks throughout his life addressing invasion and occupation, often showing a peaceful landscape inundated by a foreign intrusion. This work shows a dominating Soviet flag devolving into a black substance that invades the land. The artwork can be read as a metaphor of the invasion and destruction of a people, but also of environmental devastation, as the lands of the former Soviet bloc were highly polluted. Jan Sawka was born in the most environmentally challenged part of Poland, the coal-mining district of Upper Silesia. His family, exiled from their home in the cultural center of Krakow, had been relocated there by the communist government. This painting was part of Sawka’s installation My Europe for the Polish Pavilion at the World Expo in Seville in 1992.

Jan Sawka, The Flag, 1991, acrylic on loose canvas, wooden rod, Polish-American. Courtesy of the Jan Sawka Estate

This work addresses the trauma, staggering destruction, and losses Poland endured during World War II. The painting overlays a war-torn landscape onto the red and white stripes of the Polish flag. On September 1, 1939, Poland was the victim of an invasion by Nazi Germany. Seventeen days later, the Soviet Union invaded from the east. Both Germany and the Soviet Union targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure. Germany built concentration camps on Polish soil, and the Soviets deported Polish citizens to Siberia. Six million Polish citizens of various cultural identities perished. Throughout the occupation, Poles kept up a constant resistance. The “PW” symbol in the painting represents the Polish underground army. Jan Sawka’s parents, along with the parents of his wife Hanna were active members of the resistance. Both families lost members to the Germans and Soviets, some of them in concentration camps. This painting was part of Sawka’s installation My Europe for the Polish Pavilion at the World Expo in Seville in 1992.

Jan Sawka, Awakenings, (center piece), 1991, acrylic on loose canvas, wooden rod, Polish American. Courtesy of the Jan Sawka Estate

Awakenings was the final artwork that visitors encountered in the installation My Europe at the Seville World Expo in 1992. In a reversal of The Soviet Flag, the landscape is rising out of darkness, representing hope and recovery for the countries of the former Soviet bloc. This painting, of which the central section is shown here, was part of Sawka’s installation My Europe for the Polish Pavilion at the World Expo in Seville in 1992.

Belarusian artist Rufina Bazlova has immortalized the protests of 2020 against the government of Alexander Lukashenko through embroidery and digital art that references traditional Belarusian embroidery. Flags in Kaskad depicts a protest action in Kaskad, a business and residential complex in Minsk where protestors have come up with creative solutions to display the white-red-white flag. The white-red-white flag has been used by opposition groups in Belarus since 1995, when Lukashenko replaced it with a red and green flag with an embroidery pattern similar to the flag of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. In the artwork, the red-whitered protest flag is suspended on a rope strung between two high-rise buildings, and a government helicopter flies above waving the official flag.

Rufina Bazlova, Flags in Kaskad District, 2020, vinyl print, Belarusian, lives/works Czech Republic. Courtesy of the artist

Bazlova lives in exile in the Czech Republic, along with nearly 7,000 other Belarusian expats. Many of them are critical of the current regime and participate in the protests to make their voices heard. On August 9, 2020, many Belarusians living in the Czech Republic gathered in St. Wenceslaus Square in Prague to support the protesters in Belarus. On August 16, during another large protest rally, the large white-redwhite Belarusian flag was placed at the center of a heart formed by nearly a thousand people gathering in the Czech capital’s Old Town Square. Additionally, buildings in several Prague districts flew the historical Belarusian flag to support the protests. Rufina Bazlova, St. Wenceslaus Raising the White-Red-White Flag, 2020, vinyl print, Belarusian, lives/works Czech Republic. Courtesy of the artist

Carolina Caycedo, Banner series, ongoing since 2010, nylon banners with nylon appliqué letters, Colombian b. London, lives/works in Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist

“These banners bear personal and adopted statements (quotes) that reflect my own social, political, economic and feminine ethics and beliefs. They can also be read and used as invitations to action. The banners are inspired by visual culture: material from protests, manifestations, and direct action as places where democracy is built. They can inhabit the white cube, or be emblazoned in public space. ‘Crisis is a Means to Govern’ is a quote by Tiquun, the French-Italian anarchist journal which published materials pertaining to anti-capitalist, anti-Statist, Situationist, and feminist movements, and has been widely republished and translated in anarchist reading circles and humanities scholarship. ‘Trust Each Other’ rethinks the motto ‘In God We Trust’ while borrowing its color from US dollar bills. Finally, ‘Ni Dios ni Patrón ni Marido’ quotes anarcho-feminist colors and statements.” —Carolina Caycedo

Fiona Amundsen with Joanna Macy and Hiroshi Nakatsuji, There is a Bear in the Woods, 2022, HD video, 17:02 minutes, sound, New Zealander. Courtesy of the artist

This film brings together the seemingly unrelated contexts of United States Cold War-era military stealth technology and state-driven propaganda messaging with an ancient Tibetan Buddhist prophecy. The 1,200-year-old prophecy, read by anti-nuclear activist and scholar of Buddhism Joanna Macy, speculates that wisdom and compassion are powerful forces by which to halt the destruction of our world. In addition to Macy’s voice is a narrative commentary read by Hiroshi Nakatsuji, a rakugo (a classical form of Japanese storytelling) performer whose family is from Nagasaki. His voice explores the development of military technologies and the 1984 Republican Party presidential campaign “There is a Bear in the Woods” that speculated on America’s readiness to engage with socialist threats—be they visible or not—under the guise of peacekeeping via nuclear weapon stockpiling. These voices are accompanied by military-produced footage of nuclear weapon manufacturing and the space race, while the archival material is contrasted with present-day footage of former Cold War supersonic and stealth aircrafts, as well as flight simulation tests. The film explores these contexts to establish relationships between Cold War-era paranoia, military espionage, nuclear weaponry, and ideals of humanity collectively working for the good of all people by assuming a sacred responsibility for life and living.

Renée Petropoulos, Flag for Sri Lanka to Zanzibar (2007), Flag for the Gulf States (2007), ribbons of various fabrics, plastic pole and metal, American, lives/works in Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist

Renée Petropoulos, The Eye Flag, (2008–2009), ribbons of various fabrics, American, lives/works in Los Angeles. Courtesy of a private collection

“Each of the flags function as a signal. This follows the traditional use of flags as identifiers.” —Renée Petropoulos Petropoulos is interested in the ways abstraction can convey information without becoming didactic. Flag for Sri Lanka to Zanzibar references one of the oldest trading routes in world history, in particular the East African slave trade route. The work carries the flag colors of the places along the route, including, among others, Sri Lanka and Zanzibar. Flag for the Gulf States connects the countries from a ‘flight’ between the Gulf States whose flags present the allied and dominant colors of Islam: green, red, white, and black. Eye Flag is inspired by ideas of protection but also by a notion of how factors like superstition, luck, serendipity, and fate can determine the way we organize ourselves collectively. The artist explains that her use of ribbons “comes directly from clothing, as in many cultures clothing can signify where someone lives or what ‘tribe’ they may be a part of and who they are... Here, in particular the flags are used to call attention to arrangements and narratives that can direct one to think about ideas, the use of color, the use of material and the ‘thing’ itself.”

Lara Schnitger, All of Us, 2017, quilted and bleached linen, Dutch-American, lives/works in Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist

Lara Schnitger, A Dress is Not a Yes, 2015, quilted and bleached linen, Dutch-American, lives/works in Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist

Lara Schnitger, The Future is Female, 2018, quilted and bleached linen, Dutch-American, lives/works in Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist

Schnitger’s quilts belong to the series Suffragette City, a project devoted to what she calls her “fundamental driving motive”—feminine empowerment. The project is a traveling hybrid procession and protest piece, consisting of works that span a spectrum of graphic design to sculpture. Included here are brightly colored quilts from the series, on which she emblazons slogans found on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and buttons. All of Us uses multi-colored squares of fabric with the same color quilting thread to suggest that, despite our differences, we are united in our common humanity. It also references quilting bees, and the idea of working together toward a common project. A Dress is not a Yes, a slogan seen at Slut Walks, states that wearing a dress or mini-skirt is not a consent to be touched. Finally, The Future is Female, includes references to powerful women such as Nina Simone, Malala Yousafzai, and Sappho. By pairing techniques like dyeing, quilting, bleaching, and sewing with rebellious messages, Schnitger pushes the expressive power of quilting beyond the realm of traditional crafts, and blurs the line between “art and protest, sculpture and body, gallery and street” (Schnitger).

Cauleen Smith, Territory of the Orbit of Venus, 2017, printed cotton broadcloth, synthetic metallic leather, cotton, polysatin, polyester, acrylic construction tape, bias tape, American, lives/works in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago; and Morán Morán, Los Angeles/Mexico City. Photo by Greg Carideo.

Cauleen Smith, Territory of the Sunset, 2017, synthetic metallic leather, Lycra, polyester, metallic spandex, polysatin, silk, polyester ribbon, American, lives/ works Los Angeles. Courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago; and Morán Morán, Los Angeles/Mexico City. Photo by Greg Carideo.

“Midnight Darkness, Eventide, Dawn, Noon, Sunset, Twilight, Golden Hour. These are borderless territories ruled only by the tyranny of time. We—all of us—move through these territories thoughtlessly more often than not. These spaces cannot be parceled, portioned, or staked. These spaces are as transient as time itself. We—all of us—are without a home in space-time. And I am suggesting that that is how it should be. Meet me at Dawn. It’s cold. We’re tired. Have a fur pillow. Hover above the frosted earth on this lawn chair. Watch the light change. Can you feel the earth rotating around the sun? This is your spaceship. Act accordingly.” — Cauleen Smith Territory of the Orbit of Venus and Territory of the Sunset belong to a series of flags that represent spaces that cannot be colonized. Their abstract shapes and bright colors become zones that do not exist in real time or space, except in one’s own thoughts and imagination.

Anna Sokolova, BLACK-WHITE-BLACK. MANIFEST, 2012, HD video, 1:36 minutes, no sound, Belarusian, lives/works in Düsseldorf. Courtesy of the artist

Anna Sokolova waves a monumental black-white-black flag as a manifesto of her own artistic individuality. She deconstructs the traditional ideological function of the flag as a symbol of political identity, ethnicity, or cultural affiliation. The basic visual element, a white stripe between black stripes, moves as a trail of light against the clear blue sky. The “manifesto” is defined by the movement of the line through space. For several years, the artist has been using the white stripe on a black ground as a central symbol. Here she uses it to wave her own flag, asserting an autonomous artistic territory.

Cole Sternberg, The Official Flag of the Free Republic of California, dye sublimation and applique on nylon, 2020, American, lives/works in Los Angeles and Santa Ynez. Courtesy of the artist

The Official Flag of the Free Republic of California is part of a larger project devoted to Sternberg’s concept of “a more enlightened state through an imagined Californian nation,” addressing concepts of human rights, the environment, democracy, and freedom. He wrote a new constitution for the state, devised a legal system, and created a new flag. The new flag replaces the current official “Bear Revolt Flag,” which the artist associates with racist and anti-immigrant sentiments due to its adoption by Southern sympathizers during the Civil War and then by politicians who supported the racist and anti-immigrant bill, the California Alien Land Law of 1913. Sternberg’s flag is meant to evoke a new day. The horizontal lines of pale blue and green reference a pristine earth and the beauty of the Pacific Ocean. The Red Star symbolizes a nineteenth-century attempt to free California from Mexican rule. The central seal represents California’s independence, and includes the figure of the Greek goddess Minerva (associated with wisdom and warfare), a grizzly bear nibbling on grape leaves, and one star in the sky. “Eureka” refers to the joy expressed by explorers as they encountered the beauty of California. By hanging the flag vertically, Sternberg takes away the divisive nature that flags can engender. Physically, the flag, hung this way, is in essence bowing versus gesturing.

Molly Surazhsky, Dermokratizatsiya (Shitocracy), satin and organza, 2022, American, lives/works in New York. Courtesy of the artist

The term dermokratizatsiya is derived from post-Soviet Russian slang of the 1990s. It can be translated as “shitocracy” and refers to the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 Central to this work is the state emblem of the Soviet Union, portrayed here in decay with wilting wheat and the McDonald’s logo. The emblem emerges from a puff of smoke from the main character of the infamous post-Soviet film Brat 2 (2002). Surazhsky contrasts the influx of Western ideology with family photos taken in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Their inclusion evokes personal memories of the past, but also a cynical reflection on a naively hopeful time when many thought the introduction of democracy and the global market would bring prosperity and freedom. She emphasizes this point with other photos, including an image of a 1998 anti-war protest in Moscow against British and American missile strikes against Iraq. The entire work is veiled by the stripes of the American flag, representing the cultural imperialism of the United States. In place of the stars is a Time magazine cover from 1996, which documents a forgotten U.S. intervention into Russian elections. The sheer organza stripes are left intentionally unhemmed, and have been torn in the process of creating the work. The artist writes, “As much as the U.S. conveys itself as a powerful, democratic world leader, its power rests on a very fine line.”

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