12 to 31 May 2020.
Flags have always been a powerful means of communication. When a yellow and black flag is raised on a ship, a signal is given to the other ships that it is in quarantaine for the coming 40 days. More often, flags represent (geo) political or social realities: they serve as an identifier that includes and excludes. The great associative value of this object makes the flag an interesting medium for artists to question these properties. What else can a flag be? In these times where ways of thinking and knowing, control and demarcation are being shaken, the artists will present 13 flags that play with language, images, symbols and beliefs.
Artists: Waèl el Allouche, Babi Badalov, Sara Culmann, Rini Hurkmans, Nikolay Karabinovych, Bernice Nauta, Ahmet Öğüt, Bodil Ouédraogo, Party of the Dead, Rory Pilgrim, Berkay Tuncay.
Curated by Robbie Schweiger
In an attempt to make sense of his own existence, Babi Badalov (1959, Azerbaijan) plays with language and words from the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets in his visual poetry. His decolonial, transcultural and activist practice, which he describes as ‘oriental punk’, questions and destabilizes various imposed modernities. He sees his own identity as fluid and seeks freedom in being ‘nobody’. Who or what are you? Who or what is human? To whom or about what are you talking? And who determines that? The questions Badalov raises with his flag apply to all works within the exhibition that bears the title of his flag: WHOmanity.
Sara Culmann (1981, Russia) creates playable environments in the digital world and physical space. She examines the appeals of contemporary life, but also the feelings of fear, apathy and frustration it causes. She is specifically interested in the extent to which capitalism and the digital world translate into symbols, the meanings of which are often contradictory. In Culmann’s world, everyday objects and controversial symbols are stripped of an unambiguous meaning or message. Similarly, the flag she made for WHOmanity: the empty text clouds reduce the flag to a carrier of a message that can be filled in by anyone who looks at it.
Waèl el Allouche (1990, Tunisia) is interested in how data and algorithms shape reality and vice versa. His research starts from a search for his own identity. For WHOmanity, El Allouche discussed the inability of the flag with the text-generating ‘Plug and Play Language Model’ algorithm (PPLM) and the AttnGAN algorithm that converts text into images.
El Allouche: What a flag can’t do?
PPLM: It’s a flag that has no legal standing, which is why we have to take action to protect the people of Palestine. We need to stop the use of flags and symbols. I hope that all the political parties can do more to protect Palestinian people, not just the people.
In an uncertain time like this, the complexity, connection and dislocation of the world and its inhabitants become painfully clear. This creates a strong need for safety, security, trust and compassion. In 2002 artist Rini Hurkmans (1954, the Netherlands) initiated the Flag of Compassion, consisting of a flag, a manifesto and a foundation. Since then, the flag has been used both inside and outside the institutional context as a symbol of compassion. A flag for and from everyone.
Nikolay Karabinovych (1988, Ukraine) investigates the fluid identities of post-socialist countries and clashes between different revived forms of nationalism and histories. Karabinovych’s contribution to WHOmanity is a flag with a Russian text that can be translated as follows: “An artist who does not speak English is not an artist.” The same text reads in English on a flag by Croatian artist Mladlen Stilinović. By appropriating this work in his native language, he makes the ‘international art language’ his own, while at the same time emphasizing the impossibility of full participation in the “international” art world.
Bernice Nauta (1991, Netherlands) often collaborates with fictional characters to playfully reflect on what it means to be someone and have a personality. Nauta: “I have always had a desire to escape my identity; to be identity-less or to have a multiple identity made up out of many.” For WHOmanity, Nauta collaborated with her alter ego Benny Snouta. “The text ‘Kort van stof’ [that can be translated as ‘short-spoken’] on a flag resembles a message that wants to convey an identity or an advertisement. While actually I don’t have much to say, and Benny doesn’t either. So perhaps the identity of this flag is an anti-identity or one that says little; an identity that is short-spoken, but still existing.”
Ahmet Öğüt (1981, Turkey) often works in public space, which he sees as an important stage for common and marginalized points of view. At the same time, public space is increasingly subject to control by governments. Burning flags can be seen as the ultimate form of protest against governments they represent. With If you’d like to see this flag in colors, burn it (homage to Marinus Boezem), Öğüt suggests such an action. Just like in the work If you’d like to see this photo in colors, burn it (1967-’69) by Marinus Boezem, which was the starting point for Öğüt, the viewer is involved in the creation of the intended artwork by setting the flag on fire, giving it color but also destroying it.
Bodil Ouédraogo’s (1995, Netherlands) often takes her own bi-cultural identity as a starting point. She sees the Self as a fabric of an abundance of identity markers. For WHOmanity, Ouédraogo investigates the relationship between ‘black hair’ and identity. She examines the culture surrounding ‘black hair’ by scanning, studying and depicting her own hair on a flag. My hair, a border reflects how categorization and classifications pull the complexity of reality apart and reduce it to flat objects of scientific study. Ouédraogo appropriates this method and decolonizes this rigid approach: she brings the scanned image back into the public space, on a waving flag.
Party of the Dead is a collective of artists and activists founded in Russia in 2017. Their performances criticize the necropolitics practiced by the Russian government, using the dead as political actors. Party of the Dead was created to combat the abuse and exclusion of the dead and to offer them an opportunity to group themselves. This largest and most horizontal party uses the flag of ‘Necrorussia’. The Russian flag in black and white, because the dead do not distinguish colors.
Party of the Dead propagates an international necrocommunism and hoists a second flag during WHOmanity: The flag of the ‘Necronetherlands. The Dutch flag in black and white, because the dead do not distinguish colors.
Rory Pilgrim (1988, United Kingdom) creates spaces where people from different backgrounds can come together to learn to understand each other. For WHOmanity Pilgrim designed the flag duo Maximum Crisis / Maximum Calm. This text comes from his film The Undercurrent (2019) in which he investigates the relationship between ecological awareness and social formation of youth. How are global phenomena dealt with on a personal scale, for example in the form of the current pandemic? Maximum Crisis / Maximum Calm examines the gradient between chaos and calmness and reflects the need for tranquility in dealing with crises. Stay calm, while at the same time realizing that this is a false calm: there is no turning back.
For WHOmanity Pilgrim designed the flag duo Maximum Crisis / Maximum Calm. The flags examine the gradient between chaos and calmness and reflects the need for tranquility in dealing with crises. Stay calm, while at the same time realizing that this is a false calm: there is no turning back.
Berkay Tuncay (1983, Turkey) investigates the psychological effects of the internet on society. Feelings of stress, anxiety and frustration, which are exploited to exercise power and sell objects and services under false pretenses, are recurring themes within his work. Tuncay finds his material – images, texts, memes and videos – on the web. On his Flag #2, we see a white browser window that offers a way out of the chaos of the screen by closing the window. His flag does not represent a national identity but an emotional state.
WHOmanity is part of Amsterdam Ferry Festival and made possible with the generous support of the Mondriaan Fund, Dokkumer Vlaggencentrale and GVB.
Photo credits: Lou-Lou van Staaveren
Special thanks to: Leo Siemes, Erica Wellner, Tosca Dekker, Maxime van Middendorp, Ninnog Duivenvoorde, Judith Rigter, Wunderwald, Tariq Heijboer, FLINT Studio Amsterdam, Marc van Amerongen.
Hop on at: Centraal Station, Pontsteiger, NDSM, Buiksloterweg, Distelweg, IJplein, Azartplein, Zamenhofstraat.