Contemporary Art in the South:
“Young Americans” series by Sheila Pree Bright
The Second Continental Congress, representing the original thirteen American colonies, legally declared independence from Great Britain on July 2, 1776—236 years ago. The impetus for this act was the British Crown’s refusal to assist the colonies in receiving representation in the British Parliament in lieu of the taxes that were being leveled on the colonies’ citizens. The Congress then went about drafting the Declaration of Independence, the definitive formal statement announcing that the American colonies, which were already at war with Great Britain, were no longer part of the British Empire. It was completed two days later (although, there is some conjecture among historians about whether it was signed then or at a later date in August). The American Revolution had already begun in 1775 and would not end until 1781. However, July 4, 1776 went down in the annals of history as the birth date of the United States of America.
Amidst all of the Independence Day revelry, though, we should also take some time to reflect on where we stand in relation to our country, and how we can better serve it so as to ensure that it serves us well in kind. When the music hits an ecstatic crescendo, when the grandest firework paints the sky overhead, when a juicy burger hits your mouth, or a frosty swing of beer slides down your gullet, take a moment to be grateful, and then let that moment inspire you to loosen your mind.
If you need any further inspiration, I would suggest reflecting on the series “Young Americans” by the Atlanta artist and photographer Sheila Pree Bright. “Young Americans” is a stunning and thought-provoking compilation of photographs of young people posing with the American flag. Bright began the series in the period leading up to the presidential election of 2008, and not since Jasper Johns created his encaustic “flag” masterpieces of the 1950s has an artist managed to address the American flag in such a profoundly creative and deeply searching way.
Johns’s works read as treatises on visual repetition, surface, and the unmooring of meaning from the intended subject. They exude a sense of cool detachment. Bright’s work rescues the flag from Johns’s postmodern morass and situates it as the centerpiece in an ongoing conversation about what it means to be American, as well as a member of Generation Y, in the twenty-first century—a reconstruction of meaning, if you will. The conversation that Bright and her sitters begin is intensely personal (the title of each photograph is derived from the sitter’s name), yet it is aimed directly at the wider public.
One of the hallmarks of “Young Americans” is the interplay between the performance of Bright’s mix of sitters and the sculptural qualities the American flag takes on as a consequence of their actions. Through this interplay, new investigations into what it means to be American are born. Each photograph exerts its own strength, yet some are visually stronger than others.
Morgan Lumpkins chose to be photographed draped in the American flag with her fist in the air while wearing a Black-power T-shirt. Her pose echoes the posture of the Statue of Liberty. The image was taken before President Obama was elected and speaks volumes about how far we have come and how far we have left to go to resolve the deep racial divides that still scourge our nation.
Jenny Liu hides half of her body and face behind the flag. Liu is an Asian American, and her photograph distills the essence of the overarching issue facing America and the rest of the world during this period of increased globalization: identity. In a world rife with increasing ethnic and cultural clashes, how to self-identify has become increasingly challenging. Bright’s photograph of Liu illuminates the cultural divide.
David Gutierrez’s photograph also speaks to the American mix of cultures and diverse perspectives. Bright offers statements from her sitters to accompany their photographs, and Gutierrez states that it is difficult for him to identify with any sort of identity marker such as race or gender. Life in America can be difficult for a minority, but Gutierrez brings up an even more polemical issue—what if one doesn’t identify with any sort of label? For Gutierrez, America is a diseased body trying to purge itself of “undesirables”—minorities and, even “worse,” people who blur the accepted boundaries of race, gender, creed and cultural specificity.
Bright’s photograph of Brian Friedberg crystallizes one of the stereotypes David Gutierrez is railing against—the eroticized version of American masculinity, in which manliness is achieved by men who are willing to die for their country in the name of maintaining a way of life dependent on perpetual war. Friedberg poses as a corpse; the flag is a shroud covering his nakedness.
Edwin Roman is the only member of the Armed Services to sit for Bright. He enlisted as a serviceman when he was eighteen years old and was deployed during the war known in America as Operation Iraqi Freedom. Roman is photographed shirtless (showing off a chiseled soldier’s body), kneeling before the American flag and the flag of Puerto Rico, along with a football, a baseball, an Army-issued safari hat, and a pair of binoculars. Roman holds a rose in tribute to the people who have passed in his life. In this photograph, patriotism, death, and masculine sexuality are linked.
Sitter Elizabeth Bunnen portrays a more feminized take on America as a brooding mother to the world. Bunnen gently holds a globe wrapped in the flag. Bunnen’s statement that accompanies her photograph waxes on the precarious situation of the United States as a dominant power and steward of the planet, for good or ill.
Bright’s photograph of Tarrynn Deavens highlights the growing concern many Americans share over the status of civil liberties and freedom of speech in a post-9/11 America, which is seen by them as inordinately obsessed with finding and eradicating voices of dissent in the name of fighting terrorism. Deavens is photographed with the flag covering her mouth and wrapping around her arms.
In contrast, Omar Rodriguez reverently wraps himself in the flag while bringing it up to his lips to kiss it. Bright’s photograph of Rodriguez captures a moment of assimilation and beatification.
The photograph of Joshua Phifer is perhaps the least bombastic in the “Young Americans” series. Phifer simply stares at and contemplates the flag he holds. It’s an open photograph, a work of art that anyone can enter—a vessel to be filled. One is confronted with one’s own conceptions about the flag and America. Because of its ambiguity, it poses the greatest challenge in Bright’s series: the challenge to come to terms with what it means to be an American.
As such, my challenge to you all, dear readers, is to channel your inner Joshua Phifer—to spend some time really thinking with an open mind about your country and your role within it on this Independence Day and beyond.
Sheila Pree Bright’s photographs will be presented in the Living Walls Conference, highlighting the work of female street artists, in Atlanta this August, and the exhibition Burden of Proof: National Identity and the Legacy of War at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art in Atlanta from September 2 to December 9, 2012.
View more work by Sheila Pree Bright.