Xavier Rudd & The United Nations: Flag

Xavier Rudd is an Australian singer-songwriter who recently brought together musicians from Australia, Germany, Ireland, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and South Africa to form the band United Nations.  Their reggae song Flag leads off their latest album Nanna.

The video is built around images of white flags — the white flag of peace, not surrender.

Xavier Rudd & The United Nations: Flag. Directed & Produced by Grey Ghost. Director of Photography: Nick Rieve.

Coming with his own designs, his own style, his own awakening
He told me yes he can forgive, but he can never forget it
Weapons always close to hand, for he has seen too much hatred
Only weapon that he chooses is love, universal call now for justice
[Chorus]
And I’ll keep on waving this flag, cover my head, cover my back now
And I’ll keep on waving this flag, cover my head, cover my back now
And I’ll keep waving this flag, cover your head, cover your back now
People keep on waving this flag, cover my head, cover my back now
You know, you know, I said praise Jandamarra and the Bunuba tribe
Building the resistance with strength and pride
Said no to domination of the ancient clans
Protection of his people and his tribal lands
Healing in the tunnel at his mothers right hand
Healing in the tunnel with the spirit of the land
Precedent set for the present day
Time to stand, time to keep waving that flag
Cover my head, cover my back now
[Chorus]
And I’ll keep on waving this flag, cover my head, cover my back now
People keep on waving this flag and I’ll cover your head, and I’ll cover your back now
People keep on waving this flag, cover my head, cover my back now
Said people keep on waving this flag
People keep on waving this flag, cover my back now
(keep waving, keep on waving that flag)
Coming with my own designs, feeling strong, feeling able
Community is coming alive, loaded weapons are on the table
[Chorus]
And I’ll keep on waving this flag, cover my head, cover my back now
People keep on waving this flag, cover my head, cover my back now
People keep on waving this flag, and I’ll cover your head and I’ll cover your back now
People keep on waving this flag, cover my head, cover my back now
Said people keep on waving this flag
People keep on waving this flag, cover my back now
(keep waving, keep on waving that flag)

Read more: Xavier Rudd & The United Nations – Flag Lyrics | MetroLyrics

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Xavier Rudd will be performing in Portland on October 20.  For more on white flags in music videos, see our February 2015 post Musical White Flags.

Josh Thorpe – Heavy Ambivalent Flag

In 2010 Canadian artist Josh Thorpe created a flag that contradicted itself — white on one side, black on the other — and flew it from a pole at the entrance to the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery on the University of Toronto campus, which had commissioned the work.

Heavy Ambivalent Flag flying at the University of Toronto in 2010.
Heavy Ambivalent Flag flying at the University of Toronto in 2010.  Photo by Toni Hafkensheid.

About this work, the artist writes:

With its straight-ahead reference to surrender on the one hand and anarchy or piracy on the other, the signal is not passive aggressive, but rather passive and aggressive entwined.

The flag’s “ambivalence” (in the sense of two forces or two arguments in a state of apposition or convolution) comes from the apparent struggle between the binary black and white.

Since the flag is flying on a university campus next to a soccer field, the work is something of a joke on argumentation on the claim to knowledge or the claim to territory.

As a flag doing more or less what flags do, however, it also indicates the multivalent forces at work in the atmosphere, an order of play unintelligible to the model of binary opposition.

In order to achieve the effect of black and white, the flagmaker used two pieces of nylon with a liner between, making the flag’s movement heavy and slow. This adds an unexpected oafish quality to the final work.

A month or so after install, the flag was stolen.

Thorpe’s fellow artist David Court provides an insightful reading of the work as a piece of self-referential art — as a flag that stands for itself, and for art itself, if art is understood as a domain of both intrinsic conflict and of asylum, apart from the world.

Court says, At its most basic, Thorpe’s flag simply does what any flag does: it sets up a predetermined figure/ground relationship.  I’m not sure I agree (or understand).  I do have a hard time with that “simply”though: whatever flags do, this artwork I think shows nicely that this is never “simple”, never unequivocal, always subject to interpretation.  

One of the great things about Heavy Ambivalent Flag (as do other strong examples of flag art) is that it opens a space to ask: just what does a flag do, at its most basic level? And Thorpe answers exactly this question very nicely in his commentary above: a flag flies in the wind, indicat[ing] the multivalent forces at work in the atmosphere. Atmosphere is quite literal when it comes to flags, of course, but it is also metaphorical: a flag’s atmosphere includes the cultures, the histories, the intentions, the interpretations that animate it, that give it life.

Musical White Flags

The white flag of surrender is a recurring motif in popular music. Here is a brief survey, courtesy of YouTube:

Our first and most popular musical white flag was a 2003 pop hit by Dido with a video featuring Whedonverse actor David Boreanaz.  “White flag” appears in the chorus:  I will go down with this ship / And I won’t put my hands up in surrender / There will be no white flag above my door / I’m in love and always will be.  (But: since when has surrender been signaled by placing a white flag above a door?)

The virtual pop/hip hop band Gorillaz also has a song titled White Flag, from their 2010 concept album Plastic Beach that envisioned the band on an floating island of trash. “White flag” appears in the third verse, as a symbol of peace:  Cool! White flag! White flag! / (Uh-huh, no war!) / No guns! (No corps!) / Just life (Just love) / No hype (Just fun).

White Flag is also a song by the Christian Contemporary Music singer Chris Tomlin, the lead single from the 2012 album Passion: White Flag.  As in the Dido song, the white flag here is the flag of surrender: We raise our white flag / We surrender / All to You / All to You.  But also the flag of peace, as in the Gorillaz song: We raise our white flag / The war is over / Love has come / Your love has won.

Shaun Groves is another Christian singer/songwriter with a song about white flags and surrendering to God:  There’s a white flag / Waving where my colors used to fly / You win / There’s a white flag / Giving up and giving all of me — I give in / I’m Yours to reign and to rule / I’m just a fool / With a white flag.

Disney teen actress/singer Sabrina Carpenter‘s 2014 song White Flag continues the “surrender” theme in its chorus: I’ll throw the white flag of surrender / Knock me down, not forever, just for now.  (But: since when is surrender — even an apparently temporary one — signaled by throwing a white flag?)

Cinnamon Chasers is the name of a solo project by Russ Davies, the son of The Kinks’ Dave Davies.  His 2009 song White Flag includes this mellow yet aggressive lyric, demanding surrender:  I don’t want to hurt you now, / I don’t want to hit the ground, / Show me white flag, / I won’t fight no more.

Sri Lankan/South African/Australian hip hop/punk singer Ecca Vandal chose White Flag to be her 2014 debut single.  it’s been nominated as people’s choice Single of the Year by Rolling Stone Australia.

Our last musical White Flag was a punk band from California’s Moreno Valley whose name was a play on the famous hardcore band Black Flag (itself a reference to the black flag of anarchy). Their guitarist, the late Pat Fear, said “we’re trying to get back to an archistic state of music”.  This is a track from their 1984 album Third Strike.

The cover art for their Third Strike album is a nice mash-up of the US flag, the famous photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, and their four-bar logo (the inverse of their anti-namesake's, Black Flag).
The cover art for their Third Strike album is a nice mash-up of the US flag, the famous photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, and their four-bar logo (the tipped-over inverse of their anti-namesake’s, Black Flag).

This list is by no means complete. Do you know of other “white flag” songs? Please tell us about them in the comments below.

The Wild Standard

The Wild Standard is a small Austin-based business designing, producing, and marketing handmade, limited-edition, minimalist art-flags.  Their one-sided, black-and-white designs and emphasis on hand-lettering would not work well in the normal context for a flag:  flying in the wind atop a flag pole.  However, as home decor hung vertically or horizontally on an interior wall they exude a hip, DIY aesthetic.  They occupy a distinctive vexillographic niche.

Here are some of their products, and how they are described.

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Title: The Wild. Description: The wilderness. The untouched. The unspoiled. The silence. The feeling of smallness and insignificance. Sunsets, stars, mornings. Fires. Chats that turn your heart over and people who let you see through their skin. Many of the best of moments happen out in the wild…or at least we think so.
Title: Not All Snakes Rattle.  Description:  Quite delighted to have Christian Watson, the fine fellow of 1924us, illustrate this latest release. 'This lesson is an important one. "Not all snakes rattle before they bite." More often than not, there aren't always warnings before something bad happens or alerts when their are good opportunities in front of you, pay attention, stay vigilant and hold on tight.'"
Title: Not All Snakes Rattle. Description: Quite delighted to have Christian Watson, the fine fellow of 1924us, illustrate this latest release.
‘This lesson is an important one. “Not all snakes rattle before they bite.” More often than not, there aren’t always warnings before something bad happens or alerts when their are good opportunities in front of you, pay attention, stay vigilant and hold on tight.'”
Title: Atlanta On The Rise. Description: This here is our flagship, designed and produced for our friends at Foster. Great set of folks pioneering the creative citizens of Atlanta.
Title: Atlanta On The Rise. Description: This here is our flagship, designed and produced for our friends at Foster. Great set of folks pioneering the creative citizens of Atlanta.

See also:

Flags Buried Alive

The artist AA Bronson returned to his New York home after the 9/11 terrorist attacks:

What I found there is inscribed indelibly on my brain: a thick chalky dust of glass, concrete, paper, asbestos and human flesh that covered everything; and American flags, everywhere. Within a month I had purchased my first flag on eBay.

I made 10 paintings, each constructed of a used American flag, mounted on raw linen, and coated in layers of an antique preparation of rabbit skin glue, Champagne chalk, and honey. This compound was, historically, used to prepare the ground upon which a painting was made. But here the ground becomes the painting itself, shrouding each flag—with their history implicit in torn edges, holes and rips—in a dusty poetic silence.

Americans are famously obsessed with their flag, even disposing of used flags through burial or cremation. But my form of burial is more akin to 9/11 itself, kind of burying it alive, transforming it into an emblem of loss and mourning, not only for 9/11 but also for the America I once knew. [From an interview with Sara Hay in i-D, 2 Feb 2015]

AA Bronson examines one of his flag-canvasses in process of producing the White Flag exhibit at Galerie Esther Schipper, Berlin. From his twitter feed.
AA Bronson examines one of his flag-canvasses in process of producing the White Flag exhibit at Galerie Esther Schipper, Berlin. From his twitter feed.
Production of a white flag.  From the artist's twitter feed.
Production of a white flag. From the artist’s twitter feed.
A large production.  From the artist's twitter feed.
A large production. From the artist’s twitter feed.
"The final painting for WHITE FLAG at #EstherSchipper. Still wet. " From the artists's twitter stream.
“The final painting for WHITE FLAG at #EstherSchipper. Still wet.” From the artists’s twitter stream.

On the title of his solo show at Galerie Esther Schipper, Berlin:

The title describes the paintings, but it also alludes to the plant, White Flag, or Cemetery Iris, a white flower popular in Muslim and Christian cemeteries that’s been cultivated for over 3500 years. I’ve been working with poisonous plants for the last few years, plants associated with witchcraft, magic and medicine. White Flag is highly poisonous, invasive, and infertile. Indigenous to North Africa and the Middle East it travelled with the Muslims to Spain and then with the Spanish to America. It’s strange that a flower with such a long history in Muslim cemeteries has now come to represent Christian cemeteries as well! [From an interview with Sara Hay in i-D, 2 Feb 2015]

Iris albicans
Iris albicans, the White Flag or Cemetery Iris. From Wikipedia.

See also:

White Flags

From an article by Scott Mainwaring in The Vexilloid Tabloid #48, October 2014.

Color is so elemental in flag design that colors is a synonym for flag.   Recently, however, all-white flags have been in the news due to two Berlin artists, Matthias Wermke and Mischa Leinkauf.  In the wee hours of July 22 they evaded police surveillance to replace each 10-by-19-foot U.S. flag atop both towers of the Brooklyn Bridge with all-white versions of their own making.  New Yorkers awoke to this strange spectacle, and quickly began joking about surrender.

New York Post, 23 July 2014.
New York Post, 23 July 2014.
Brooklyn Bridge, 22 July 2014. Photo from ilovegraffiti.de.

Wermke and Leinkauf are not the only artists to produce all-white American flags.  I’ve come across at least three precedents.  Earliest is Jasper Johns’ monumental 1955 painting White Flag, now in the permanent collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Another is the flag James Cross painted white, photographed, and submitted to a 1986 design exercise by Kit Hinrichs.  Third, like Wermke and Leinkauf and at roughly the same time, Portuguese artist João Felino fabricated and displayed an all-white U.S. flag as one of many “de-colored” national flags in his “Flags of the World” project.

These artworks are all, in their own ways, meditations on the ideas of liberty and possibility.  They use white not as the color of surrender, but as the absence of color—so startling in the case of the U.S. flag that it forces a double-take.  They make us ask anew, “what does this mean?”

Jasper Johns: White Flag (1955). From jasper-johns.org.

Jasper Johns’ painting is a major milestone in the history of modern art, a force to be reckoned with by any subsequent artist working on this theme.  It’s large (10 by 6 feet), richly layered (made of wax, pigment, and newspaper clippings), and deeply ambiguous.  As critic Andrew Graham-Dixon points out, it was originally understood as “art for art’s sake” having little to say about the flag and its meaning, instead “[forcing] the viewer to contemplate only the act of painting itself”.  Johns then divulged, mysteriously, that it had come to him in a dream, rooted in a trip he took with his father to a monument to their ancestor William Jasper, who died in the American Revolution saving a flag from enemy hands.  And how could it not be seen as a commentary by the young, gay, and left-wing Johns on 1950s America in which ideals of free speech and free association were buried under layers of homophobia and McCarthyism?

In White Flag, Johns laid the foundation of a life-long project in which he painted and repainted the American flag many dozens of times and ways, continually returning to it and questioning it.

James Cross: untitled, 1986. From Kit Hinrichs: Stars & Stripes, Chronicle Books, p.24.
James Cross: untitled, 1986. From Kit Hinrichs: Stars & Stripes, Chronicle Books, p.24.

For his 1986 book Stars and Stripes, Kit Hinrichs invited fellow graphic designers and illustrators to reinterpret Old Glory to make a related point: that the U.S. flag itself invites reinterpretation, and that those obsessed with “protecting” it from “misuse” are misguided.  James Cross’s flag covered by thick white paint is, like all the other submissions, an expression of the American ideal of liberty, to make and remake our own meanings independent of formal codes and standards.  The book presents all the re-workings without commentary, leaving them to the reader to interpret.

Closeup of one of Wermke & Leinkauf’s enormous white flags. From ilovegraffiti.de.

For Wermke and Leinkauf, their flag stunt is a similar expression of individual freedom and resistance.  Though mysterious (and to the NYPD embarrassing and even scary) when taken out of context, the event is better understood as part of a series of “interventions” they’ve carried out. They declare:

We investigate the boundaries of public space in urban environment through different kinds of interventions and performances.  We temporarily override limitations and constraints without permission or invitation.  Our aim is to question common standards and to show the beauty beyond these standards.

This particular stunt was a tribute to fellow German John Roebling, who designed the Brooklyn Bridge and died during its construction, and his American-born son Washington Roebling who oversaw its completion—and to the bridge itself as a wonderful accomplishment and public space.  Their intervention calls attention to the two huge flags that are part of the bridge’s design, and (unlike the other three cases) to the power of flying a flag in a public place.

João Felino's un-colored flags as exhibited in Lisbon, May-August 2014.
João Felino’s de-colored flags as exhibited in Lisbon, May-August 2014.
Felino holding his un-colored US flag.
Felino holding his de-colored US flag.

Coincidentally, while Wermke and Leinkauf were displaying all-white U.S. flags they had made in Brooklyn, artist João Felino was displaying an all-white Stars and Stripes he had made in Lisbon’s Museum of Design and Fashion (MUDE).  Felino’s work is more overtly critical, pointing to the ways in which national colors divide the world’s people, fostering an “us vs. them” mentality.  As the director of MUDE, Bábara Coutinho, puts it:

Without the color, the differences erode, revealing the organization and the common rules of composition that the design of all flags must respect.  Thus, this installation evokes the commonalities that unite all countries, despite their cultural and historical differences. (From a Google translation of the press release for Flags of the World)

This nicely expresses the idea that there is a “language of flags” that unites all nations in common needs of self-expression, respect, and   autonomy, but also in the material requirements of flag design itself.  Flags are about free speech and  liberty, but also standards and constraints.

The questions that Jasper Johns first raised in White Flag in 1955 continue to resonate.  How can flags be at once commonplace but extraordinary, standardized but reinterpretable, divisive but universal, and admitting so many layers of interpretation and meaning?  The “simple”—but provocative—act of draining color from a flag is a surprisingly rich way to explore fundamental vexillological concerns.

(For more on white flags and art, David Dunnico’s A White Flag on the Moon and other stories about Flags and art and stuff is full of fascinating examples and analysis.  Available at http://artandflags.wordpress.com.)