Nimai Kesten (www.nimaikesten.com) grew up in an abusive Hare Krishna boarding school in Lake Huntington, NY before transforming “into a loud-mouthed, rebellious, New York City graffiti writing skateboarder” and surfer. He writes in his bio:
In his early 20’s, Nimai began to look at the life he carved out on the streets of New York for himself – skateboarding, graffiti, nightclubs, partying, models, fashion, and general juvenile superficial mayhem. And, suddenly, for the first time, he began to examine this pop culture world through, new, spiritual eyes. But the eyes of a man so horribly wronged by the leaders of a Faith he was born into, that the contradictions, confusion, and questions became all consuming.
Nimai moved to Venice Beach, California in 2002 to focus on his art as a cathartic means to make sense of his conflicting, personal ideas of ‘Faith’ and the corruption of one’s ‘Beliefs’.
In several of his pieces he has turned to the American flag and its contradictions.
Thanks to the contemporary flag art blog flagworkz.tumblr.com for bringing this remarkable artist to our attention!
On this 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, here is a look at some of its flags.
The flag of Vietnam, a large yellow star on a field of red, has a simple, bold design. Designed in 1940 for an uprising against French colonial rule, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed it the flag of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945, and the flag of the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976. Accounts vary on which Communist cadre designed it, official accounts saying Nguyễn Hữu Tiến, though others suggest Lê Quang Sô. Tiến composed a poem about the flag, reading in part:
… All those of red blood and yellow skin
Together we fight under the nation’s sacred flag
The flag is soaked with our red blood, shed for the nation
The yellow star is the color of our race’s skin
Stand up, quickly! The nation’s soul is calling for us
Intellectuals, peasants, workers, traders and soldiers
United as a five-pointed yellow star…
Determined to fight the French and Japanese fascists…
This same theme of “red blood and yellow skin” is also understood to underlie the flag of South Vietnam (now also known as the Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag): three red stripes on a field of yellow. Catholic Vietnamese painter Lê Văn Đệ is credited with the 1948 design, which was based on a one decreed in 1890 by Emporer Thành Thái to be the national flag. The stripes can be interpreted to refer to Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina (the northern, central, and southern protectorates of French Vietnam), or the trigram ☰ symbolizing, among other things, south.
Both flags, the red and the yellow, remain divisive symbols, especially to the Vietnamese immigrant community in the US. After the surrender of the South to the North in 1975, the yellow flag became a banned symbol of disloyalty in Vietnam; and after the Clinton Administration normalized relations with Vietnam in 1995, as the flag of an unrecognized country, the yellow flag was banned from US military facilities. This recently led to the last-minute cancellation at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendelton (near San Diego) of a large event for the American Vietnamese community when organizers insisted on flying what they saw as their flag there. (Pendelton was where many thousands of refugees from Vietnam were processed upon arrival in the US following “Black April” 40 years ago.) Conversely, the red flag is de-facto prohibited in Orange County’s Little Saigon and other areas dominated by Vietnam War-era immigrants.
Two organizations in the US related to the Vietnam War have noteworthy flags. One is the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), whose flag is displayed in the Senate and House changers of the Veterans Affairs Committee in Washington, DC. According to the VVA, the flag is based on the green, yellow, and red Vietnam Service Ribbon which was awarded to those “who served in Southeast Asia and the contiguous waters or air space thereover from July 4, 1965, through March 28, 1973”. The brown stars represent the 17 official campaigns of the war. Around the VVA insignia are a laurel branch and a sheaf of rice stalks bound together with black barbed wire that “serves as a reminder of the POWs and MIAs who are still unaccounted for”.
In 1970 Mrs. Mary Hoff, an MIA wife and member of the National League of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia recognized the need for a symbol for our POW/MIAs. She read a newspaper article in the Jacksonville, Florida Times Union about Annin Flagmakers that explained how Annin helped to design and subsequently manufactured the flags for the newer UN member nations. After contacting Annin, Mrs. Hoff found Norman Rivkees who was VP of Sales at the time very sympathetic to the cause. He in turn contacted a local advertising agency and contracted graphic designer Newt Heisley to design a flag to represent the group.
With the Vietnam War over now for four decades, is it time to take down these black flags? One brave editor of the Metrowest Daily News in Massachusetts thinks so — Rick Holmes published a long and thoughtful editorial advocating what sure to be a controversial proposal this week.