The exhibition unFlagging at Ballroom Marfa aligned strikingly with current events, reevaluating in real-time what flags signal about place, national identity, and values.
When galleries closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in March 2020, a flagpole became the exhibition space at Ballroom Marfa. The museum commissioned flags by eight leading contemporary artists, each accompanied by a sound activation, for a show titled unFlagging (October 2, 2020–February 18, 2021). As an intern at the museum last fall, I saw the exhibition unfold as the political situation in the United States became increasingly fraught. The result was a timely reimagining of what flags can signal about place, national identity, and values.
The flags were exhibited on rotation, each flying above the West Texas desert for two weeks, beginning with Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuña’s Ver Dad. The flag features an eye inscribed with the word “ver” (meaning “to see”) and an open palm holding the word “dad.” Together, the flag reads “verdad,” meaning “truth.” Vicuña originally created the symbol in 1974 after fleeing the Pinochet regime. At the time, it served as an invitation to see the truth of the moment. In October 2020, when the national conversation surged around “fake news,” demagoguery, and intense partisan division, Vicuña’s flag renewed the invitation to look for truth.
The U.S.-Mexico border region in which Marfa is situated remained a site of contention this fall as Trump pushed forward on his border wall project. Several of the artists involved in unFlagging used Ballroom’s location and the political moment to subvert the way in which flags are commonly used to demarcate boundaries. Jeffrey Gibson’s one becomes the other features two eight-point stars that, as the flag waved, appeared to merge, challenging the concept of strict binaries. The design references Texas’s “Lone Star State” moniker and draws inspiration from geometric abstractions in the Lone Star quilts of Indigenous peoples.
Byron Kim’s monochrome Sky Blue Flag resists the traditional role of flags as indicators of power. Fading slowly in the sun, the flag was designed to become white over time, eventually evoking the color of a flag of surrender. Rather than staking a territorial claim on the land for the United States, Kim’s flag matches the proportions of the Mexican flag and was dyed to match the sky of Ciudad Juárez, México where it was fabricated by artisans at NI EN MORE, an activist women’s sewing studio. As divisions were being exploited during the presidential campaign, Sky Blue Flag was a visible product of international collaboration.
Lisa Alvarado’s Thalweg Flag visualizes the border as a landform. A thalweg is the point of lowest elevation and the median point of a river that serves as an international boundary. As sediment shifts, this point does too. Countering artificial boundaries, Alvarado sees this shifting border as a liminal space that can become a site for healing between people. Acknowledging that the border is politicized and a site of division, the flag’s color evokes the yellow of the bracelets worn by families separated at the border.
The easy, wind-blown rhythm of the flags countered the palpable anxiety surrounding the election. As Marfans went to the polls on November 3, they saw Hank Willis Thomas’s flag Life, Handle with Care flying in Ballroom’s courtyard. A play on shipping labels for fragile goods, the flag urges viewers to treat people and communities with the same heightened level of care given to valuable objects.
Of course, the election didn’t resolve once the votes were in. As rioters stormed the Capitol building on January 6 carrying flags with xenophobic symbols Naama Tsabar’s flag Untitled (Without) flew in Marfa. Tsabar’s flag is entirely antithetical to the flags carried by the rioters. In the space where we would expect a flag, Tsabar left a cut-out. This negative space suggests not a power grab, but an invitation to create a better future. The flag is composed of long white strips, sewn together with colored stitches drawn from the colors of the LGBTQIA+ Progress Pride Flag. Untitled (Without) is welcoming, calming, inclusive, and suggests that perhaps identity can be better represented with subtle rather than bold symbols.
After the tumultuous events of the past several months, the American flag, with all it symbolizes, still flies. Exactly what our national flag symbolizes about our identity, however, continues to be in flux. UnFlagging demonstrated that flags are incredibly mutable. Used for demarcating ownership, they also alert us to ever-changing conditions. At Ballroom, they proved capable of complex symbolism that challenged political realities while encouraging unity, truth, and reflection.