With the 2015 closing of Grand Arts, the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute is now KC’s go-to gallery for intellectually challenging shows on relevant topics. And where better to present such shows than at an academic institution that trains artists, arbiters of a society’s values and harbingers of cultural change.
Raechell Smith, Artspace director and curator, sees the gallery as an opportunity to expose students to global perspectives that they might not get in their classes. The fall 2016 show by Eritrean artist Dawit Petros, for example, helped contextualize the current migrant crisis within the broader history of European colonialist adventures.
Now, Smith has organized “The State of the World,” an international exhibit that speaks to issues of citizenship and refugees, immigration and migration in the wake of the contentious 2016 American Presidential election.
The exhibit’s focus is flags, including a piece by nationally prominent textile artist Sonya Clark featuring piles of thread from an unraveled Confederate flag. Another highlight is Moroccan-born Mounir Fatmi’s celebrated “The Lost Springs,” a commentary on dashed dreams comprising flags from the 22 states that make up the Arab League. Smith was captivated by the work when she saw it at the 2011 Venice Biennale.
“The exhibit is my way of creating space to spur a conversation — about migration, people on the move, borders, boundaries, citizens and nationhood,” Smith said. “I look to artists for different insights and differing ways of thinking about issues.”
Belgian-born artist Edith DeKyndt’s video, “One Second Of Silence” (2008), portrays her “Transparent Flag,” radically emptied of nationalist symbols and emblems in the interest of encouraging quiet contemplation. Similar pacifist aims animate Lucy and Jorge Orta’s “Antarctica Flag” (2007), a colorful collage blending flags of 50 nations, created as a tribute to the Antarctic Treaty and its commitment to peace and international scientific cooperation.
Created in 1989 to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, Komar & Melamid’s color etching, “Our Flag (Second Project),” with its image of a starry night sky in place of the field of five-pointed stars, takes on new relevance at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
The exhibit’s works by 14 artists include deadpan photographs of flags in everyday American settings by Kansas City artist Mike Sinclair and a new site-specific installation by public artist and KCAI associate professor Jim Woodfill featuring signal, surrender and caution flags.
Smith wanted to broaden the exhibit’s focus beyond flags as national emblems; she is also interested in the formal aspects of flag design, and their dialogue with the tradition of abstraction.
Certainly, that is one of the first things that comes to mind upon seeing a brilliant orange flag with a single black stripe across the lower half, but the backstory locates the design within the turgid flow of current events. Titled “Refugee Flag,” it was created to represent the Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Olympics by Amsterdam-based Syrian refugee and artist Yara Said.
Said herself wore the orange lifejacket with black stripes that inspired the flag’s design, intended as a symbol of solidarity with 65 million displaced people. In conjunction with the exhibit, an image of the “Refugee Flag,” fluttering against a background of sea and sky, has been mounted on the Block Artspace Project Wall.
The exhibit opened Feb. 10 and runs through March 18, but the image of the “Refugee Flag” on the Project Wall will remain up through spring. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, 816.561.5563 or www.kcai.edu/artspace.