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Graduate student’s ‘ART Rebel’ provokes discussion on Confederate flag, symbolism

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The traditional Confederate flag design is altered by DuLaney’s signature bold “ART” that he adds to all of his pieces. | Kaylee Dusang/The Cougar

The Confederate flag is a symbol of hatred and racism to many people, and to others — especially in the South — it’s regarded as a point of pride and a reminder of a time when their states rebelled against what they perceived to be an authoritarian government. One student at the University of Houston is turning the controversy of the flag into art.

Second-year Master of Fine Arts candidate Alton DuLaney unveiled “ART Rebel,” a Confederate flag with the word “art” placed in the center, at the Blaffer Art Museum on Friday. The 8-by-12-foot artwork is inspired by a quote from former President Barack Obama saying the flag “belongs in a museum” and not on public buildings.

“What if we take this flag, use it as inspiration, re-contextualize it inside the museum, rename it and call it art?” DuLaney said. “How does that change the impact, the whole meaning of it and how people see it?”

DuLaney said he attempted to take a neutral stance on the project and present it in a way that would encourage the audience to have a collective, public conversation about the issue.

“It’s elevating it in a way to the status of art,” DuLaney said, “but it’s also reducing it to just art.”

DuLaney uses flags and a red, white and blue palette for many of his projects.

“I like to examine these objects that are right on the edge,” DuLaney said. “In my work, it’s about pride, power and patriotism.”

During last year’s student exhibition, DuLaney presented a similar project called “ART Gun,” a response to the recently enacted campus carry law. Because part of the work involved a firearm — a revolver enclosed in a glass frame — DuLaney could not display the entire piece.

The University of Houston Police Department would not allow the gun to be shown in a campus museum, DuLaney said, even though the law meant students could have one in their pocket.

Similar to his intentions with “ART Rebel,” DuLaney said last year that he wanted “ART Gun” to spark conversations regarding campus carry.

“I’m really happy that the Blaffer Art Museum collaborated with me to get this piece in the show,” DuLaney said. “Because they could have said no, but they didn’t. They made it happen and were very encouraging.”

Michael Charles, an art professor and a member of DuLaney’s advisory board, said much of DuLaney’s work explores issues such as identity and race.

“I think Alton’s piece is pretty timely, given the fact that he has done this, and it’s hanging on the walls now, and there’s debates about the civil war on the television, radio and internet today,” Charles said.

DuLaney said he revealed his project at a relevant time for discussions on issues of Confederate symbols. New Orleans began removing four Civil War-era monuments on April 24.

The New York Times reported that protests arose from supporters who deemed the memorials historically important, while critics of the monuments viewed them as racist symbols.

“I think we’re at a moment right now that is very important that we’re looking at this,” Dulaney said. “We should be having this conversation.”

Even though DuLaney’s piece is not an actual Confederate flag, he struggled with finding the original design for his project since the flag is no longer sold in most stores.

After Dylann Roof shot nine people at the AME Emanuel Church in 2015, CNN reported that the Confederate flag was removed from stores such as Walmart, Amazon, Sears and eBay

DuLaney said he is interested in how inanimate objects can have power over an audience.

“Even though I redesigned it, it still obviously has a lot of power to it,” Dulaney said. “People are reacting very strongly to it.”

“ART” is a signature statement inscribed across all DuLaney’s projects. He said he is interested in the ability of words to change an image and he believes the project would be interpreted differently if the word “history” or “shame” were on the piece instead.

“I am not trying to glamorize or glorify that image,” DuLaney said. “I am not trying to disrespect or desecrate it either — I am just trying to present it.”

As a United States history professor, Steven Deyle said his perception of the project was that the word “ART” written across the flag seemed to deprive the image of its power. He said he finds it much more offensive in someone’s yard than in the context of art.

“I’m not offended by this as much as I am by other people who embrace it for other reasons,” Deyle said. “It’s not empowering this flag. It’s sort of diffusing it by turning it into art.”

Audience member and corporate communications alumnus Christian Ohuabunwa said he viewed the project as a Confederate flag without any connotations, and that it changed the conversation about the symbol.

“Everything is symbolism,” Ohuabunwa said. “When you see the word ‘ART’ boldly, your mind does not shout that it’s a Confederate flag, but a flag with the word ‘ART.’”

DuLaney’s “ART Rebel” will be displayed in the School of Art student exhibition at the Blaffer Art Museum until May 13.

“I hope people can look at it and talk about it in a non-heated kind of way,” DuLaney said. “If you can’t talk about these things in the world of art and academia, where can you talk about them?”

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