The Flags of the Fante
Flags are no joke. They are not just bright colors and shapes; not just medieval pag- eantry or 20th-century royal theatrics. They can signify fierce allegiances, profound sentiments, or dangerous warnings.Skip to next paragraph
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Flags can mark the achievements of space travel, the conquering of mountain peaks, or the heroic exploration of antarctic regions. Planted in such remote reaches, they also symbolize a claim to the surrounding ground on the basis of first-come, first-served.
Given the deep-seated seriousness that even the most sophisticated modern cultures can attach to their flags, it always seemed strange to me that when the American artist Jasper Johns made the stars and stripes the subject of some of his paintings, there was not more outraged protest at his treatment of this sacrosanct image as Pop Art.
Not that he desecrated it in any way. He even might be seen as respecting it by representing it as art; though, in fact, he treated the flag as though it were an object with little or no meaning. He equated it with other subjects out of which he made drawings and paintings: targets, maps, numbers, and letters. By turning all these into paintings, he treated them as form, shape, or even objects, rather than as signs or functions.
Turned into art, they had less meaning, not more. Johns has described these subjects as being ``pre-formed, conventional, depersonalized, factual, exterior elements ... things that can be dealt with without having to judge them: They seem to me to exist as clear facts, not involving aesthetic hierarchy.''
It would appear that he saw a flag, like a number or a letter, as a kind of repeatable, dead-pan, common property that, in itself, was not aesthetic at all, and therefore ideal as material out of which to make art without pretension or historical precedent.
Perhaps it is a comment on Western attitudes to art in our century that, whereas a politician, a schoolteacher, or a general might see the flag as a vastly significant emblem, an artist sees it mainly as color and shape.
Something not dissimilar has occurred by making traveling exhibitions, and a book, out of the flags of the Fante. This West- African tribe, inhabiting the coastal region of Ghana, subdivides into many traditional states. Peter Adler and Nicholas Barnard, in their book ``Asafo! African Flags of the Fante'' write of the ``political complexities'' of the Fante region: ``...there are twenty-four traditional states along an eighty-mile stretch of the Atlantic coast, and each state is independently ruled by a paramount chief (`omanhen'), supported by elders and a hierarchy of divisional town and village chiefs.
``In one town there may be from two to fourteen Asafo companies, with as many as seven active companies in a single town.... When the Fante were not fighting together against a common enemy, ... antagonisms often extended to open conflict among themselves. Observers report that battles between Asafo companies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries left many dead or wounded.''
The flags in the traveling exhibitions (see schedule next page) and illustrated in the book are from a period of 150 years. Although in the West these generally 3-by-5-foot patchwork images have a primitive appeal, a directness, and a simple, strong use of color and visual language that impresses easily as a kind of charm, they were not intended to be in any way delightful.