MIAMI — A University of Miami assistant professor is provoking plenty of controversy and debate with an artwork that blends the Stars and Stripes with a KKK symbol — and she says that was exactly the idea.
Three American flags sewn into Ku Klux Klan-style hoods stand in the window of a faculty art exhibit in Miami’s historic Wynwood Art District. Visible from outside the gallery, they nabbed headlines even before the show opened October 23.
And the “American Mask” piece by Billie Grace Lynn still stands in the window – where it will remain until the exhibit’s end on November 12.
“It’s a deliberately provocative piece,” Lynn told CNN. “It’s a proposal. I’m asking a question. There’s no way to walk up to someone on the street and say, ‘Do you think people are concealing their bigotry and racism behind the flag, behind being patriotic?’ That’s the question and that’s what I find so disturbing.”
The white stars and dark blue part of the flag form the cone of the mask. On the cone’s tip, there’s a golden eagle with open wings — a flag’s finial.
The bright red and white stripes form the lower part of the mask, hanging vertically with burned-out eyeholes. All three masks are secured upright on poles with bases shaped like Nazi swastikas.
The piece was prompted by this year’s riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, said Lynn. Reactions to “American Mask” have fluctuated between misidentifying the piece as white supremacist art, understanding the intended message and expressing disgust at the desecration of the flag.
“This is disgusting. This is disrespectful,” Patrick Young, who works in another part of the gallery’s building, told CNN affiliate WSVN. “I can’t see it being a positive message any way that you put it. This is disgusting to me.”
Willie Sanders, who works near the building, said he doesn’t like anything about the piece, from the destruction of the flag to the resulting design.
“I don’t think that’s any art,” Sanders told WFOR, another CNN affiliate. “I think that KKK symbol with the United States flag — I don’t believe that’s a piece of art. I believe that’s a sign of racism.”
Some people, with their email addresses visible, have wished Lynn death and cancer, she said. Others have suggested that “the American people will come” for her and fired insults at her looks and who she is.
Lynn, an associate professor of sculpture in the university’s art and art history department, said she no longer reads the dozens of messages crowding her email inbox.
“It’s not a conversation that takes on the meaning of the work — it’s more of an assassination of character,” she said. “When people have only personal attacks to launch, you know the truth hit home in them.”
But not all the messages she receives are hate-filled or threatening. One email from a mother of two boys thanked Lynn “for being inspirational and thought-provoking.” Lynn said African-American women have reached out offering support and even their phone numbers.
The university has openly backed such an effort.
“The University of Miami supports artistic expression and freedom of speech,” said an official University of Miami statement sent to CNN. “The art exhibit by University of Miami associate professor Billie G. Lynn, American Mask, was not reviewed or approved in advance by University of Miami officials, nor would it be subject to such review: It is an art exhibit by a member of our faculty, and her art is of her making.”
‘No pleasure’ to make
The installation is not the first time Lynn has put her needle, scissors and small torch to the American flag. In 2006, she made the first one for a show about the Abu Ghraib prison. And last year, Lynn walked around the Wynwood neighborhood with the mask on and signs saying ‘Bigotry is not patriotic.”
No one uttered a word about the art in either instance.
“It’s been really interesting for me to know how long I’ve been making these things and seemingly no one cares until now,” Lynn said. “I’m still trying to think about that and what it means. Obviously it means we are living in a different time than we did eight months ago. Everything has changed.”
Lynn has now made 20 of the masks. She said the idea first came to her after noticing that flags behind presidents at podiums hung in a shape similar to KKK hoods. She went through with constructing the hoods knowing that she’d be “crossing a line by doing it.”
“It’s only in our minds that we bring this symbol to life and into power,” Lynn said. “The flag itself, the fabric itself, has no power in it and I think it’s something that people really need to keep in mind.”
Still, fashioning KKK masks out of the American flag doesn’t thrill the artist and professor.
“It gave me no pleasure to cut apart the flag and burn it and turn into a shape that embodies hatred and violence,” she said.
Her hand shook the first time she started cutting an American flag, but using such a “powerful symbol” was necessary to drive conversation.
“This is me saying ‘this is what you are’ and ‘this is not what America stands for,'” she said. “‘You’re concealing your racism and bigotry behind the flag and I see you. I’m calling it out and I’m naming it.’ Until you name something, people can’t begin to think about it and that’s why art is powerful.”