Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Confederate Flag Belongs in a Museum

One of the objects in our galleries that is hardest to explain is the presence of a work of art that consists entirely of the Confederate flag. Especially this past week, it has been difficult to explain its presence, but we often see visitors move past it quickly, without taking the time to read the long label next to it. Middle schoolers on a school tour poke one another and point at it. It seems out of place with its surroundings, but it is a subtle, complex and powerful work of art.

Leo Twiggs created the work, which is titled "Georgia II." Born in St. Stephen, South Carolina, he was the first African American to receive an doctoral degree in art education from the University of Georgia. From 1964 to 1998, he taught at South Carolina State University, serving as chair of its art department and director of the I.P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium. Retired from teaching, he now focuses entirely on his studio work, serving as artist in residence at his undergraduate alma mater, Claflin University, in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

The Georgia Museum of Art organized and traveled an exhibition of Twiggs' work in 2004 ("Myths and Metaphors: The Art of Leo Twiggs"), complete with a catalogue that is now out of print, and acquired "Georgia II" in 2008. Created using batik wax-resist related to African folk techniques, it is one of many examples in which the artist addresses the flag and attempts to transform its meaning. 

Our director, William U. Eiland, wrote the following in his preface to the catalogue:
Leo Twiggs, with gentle but unswerving irony, takes the flag and claims it as part of his Southern heritage. Tattered, disappearing almost on its support, the standard about which there is so much controversy becomes in Twiggs's hands an ambiguous metaphor of unresolved conflict, yes, but also of a shared history. In addition to the Civil War, it calls to mind equally for Twiggs the suffering of slaves, the turmoil of Reconstruction, the indignity of Jim Crow, and even the promise of the Civil Rights era, and, of course, the aftermath, when this piece of cloth, venerated by some, reviled by others, continues to inspire argument and dissension. Twiggs transforms the image through shaping a new iconography for it, one in which he finds the possibility, albeit remote, of accord.
When President Obama said he believes the Confederate flag belongs in a museum this week, he was no doubt talking about a history museum, but in this case, we believe it belongs in an art museum, too.

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