A Sandtown mural project is torn over the meaning of the American flag

Baltimore City Paper
A Sandtown mural project is torn over the meaning of the American flag

After the death of Freddie Gray in police custody last April, the white street artist Nether went to the vigil at the corner of Mount and Presbury, where Gray was arrested. There, he met Brandon Ross, who described himself as Freddie Gray's best friend and "god brother."

Ross and Nether, whose real name is Justin Nethercut, came together to honor Gray's memory and vocalize the wider problems of police brutality and civil rights with a mural, which features three panels arranged as a triptych. In the center is a portrait of Gray. To the left, there is Nether's depiction of the march from Selma to Montgomery and on the right, another march, led by Ross and Gray's other friends and associates. In both side panels the marchers carry American flags.

It's a wildly popular image. It has appeared on the cover of this paper and as the backdrop for numerous other works of art, including the music video for Young Moose and Martina Lynch's collaboration 'No SunShine.' It was the first in a series of murals called Visions: Sandtown which Nether worked on with artist Ernest Shaw and activist J.C. Faulk.

But, as it turns out, those flags in the mural have created controversy—and broken Visions: Sandtown in two.

"I was standing at the mural and this sister comes up to me, she's 74 years old," Faulk recalls. "She looks at the mural and says, 'Nice mural but, a white guy did that.' And I said, 'How did you know that? How did you know that a white guy did it?' And she said, 'Because black people don't walk around in protest with flags.'"

A couple months earlier, Faulk was part of the project, spearheading the landscaping in the yard around the mural. But after this exchange, Faulk became its fiercest critic, openly calling Nether and Shaw—who painted an Open Walls mural on Faulk's own Station North home—"assholes."

For Faulk it is a problem for Nether, a white artist, to come in painting American flags, which, Faulk says, represent slavery and colonialism.

Nether says that the first flag was taken directly from the photograph of the march on Selma that was his source and that the second flag, added to the photographic source of Ross leading a group of contemporary marchers, came from Ross himself.

"I talked about it with Brandon and he didn't want the flag in gray scale, so we went with reclamation of the red, white, and blue American flag," Nether says.

But Ross has fallen away from the project and has not returned CP's many calls.

The issue of the American flag takes on an added dimension in the context of the debates over the Confederate flag following the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this summer.

And as other mural projects—such as Art @ Work, a project led by Jubilee Baltimore and the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, which hired neighborhood youths to work with local artists on walls in the neighborhood—come into Sandtown, the question of who gets to decide what images adorn community walls becomes even more pressing. Visions: Sandtown is going forward, while Faulk is launching his own project.

And indeed, the feud is ultimately one of vision. Faulk, who is African-American and recently moved to Baltimore from Washington, D.C., is interested in a grander project of black empowerment that is led by what he calls "conscious" black voices. For him, the flag is a symbol of the problem of bringing white artists into black communities.

Shaw, who is also black and has been working in West Baltimore for decades, and Nether have both done highly political work before. They say they are more interested in the audience than in the creator.

"The work is created for the audience," Shaw says. "It's not art for art's sake. And it's not simply about your egotistical artist of whatever ethnicity that are putting their stamp on a neighborhood. These artists are social documentarians, which is part of their role and responsibility as artists. And they are fulfilling that responsibility by engaging in dialogue with the members of that community as part of the creative process."

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