Sunday, August 20, 2006
An American artist reclaims her nation’s flag
During the American embassy hostage crisis of 1979, the wife of hostage Bruce Laingen tied a yellow ribbon around an oak tree in her yard and vowed the ribbon would stay there until her husband came home to untie it himself. This traditional American symbol of reunion soon made its way to front lawns across the US, its heartwarming symbolism quickly becoming an icon of support for America’s heartless war on the people of the Middle East. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq there was hardly a gas guzzler on American freeways that did not try to blindfold the American conscience with a ribbon or a flag. Now, American artist/activist Sandy Eastoak has taken up the challenge of salvaging such important symbols for the many Americans who do not support Western militarism in the Middle East. Having witnessed the brutality of US policy towards Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon, Eastoak does not waste time engaging in the yellow ribbon battle. She charges up the hill to recapture the American flag itself.
I saw Eastoak’s “Take Back the Flag” series at a private viewing in her studio when the paint was still fresh. The pattern of 50 stars and stripes has been preserved faithfully, but in one of the flags the 50 stars have been replaced by a sequence of 50 images of the sun in various stages of eclipse. Our local star goes into an eclipse but emerges radiant once again. In other flags the stars become hearts, doves, plants or the moon in its various phases. The stripes act as ruled paper for writing a list of names. Among the names I was pleased to find a few familiar Iranian-Americans who have contributed to American culture: Ali Javan, the inventor of the gas laser; Classical guitarist Lily Afshar; artist Shireen Neshat; Firouz Naderi, head of NASA’s Mars exploration program. Another flag contains the name of Samuel Jordan, the founder of Alborz High School in Tehran. These are people whose fame testifies to the enormous utility of peace between peoples of different cultures.
Eastoak plans to transfer the artwork to cloth so that her patrons can fly her flags outside their homes. Military families who oppose the war and have lost loved ones to the Middle East war may find more patriotic meaning in receiving one of these flags in place of the traditional flag ceremonially presented to the family of the fallen soldier. The father of war resistor Lieutenant Ehren Watada will be receiving one of Eastoak’s reclaimed flags in an upcoming ceremony in California.
Pacifist American author Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “A good symbol is the best argument.” So far all the best symbols of argument have been usurped by war supporters. Eastoak is an artist of our times because with her work the voice of non-violence, too long hostage to paranoia and profiteering, has finally come home to untie the yellow ribbon.