Growing up in the South during the Civil Rights era, Leo Twiggs was well acquainted with the Confederate flag, but it wasn’t until he went to get his doctorate from the University of Georgia that he began to be drawn to the flag as a subject for his art.
“On my way there I would just see these flags flying,” Twiggs says. “But I had never seen the flag displayed the way it was than on my way to the University of Georgia.
“This pre-occupation with the flag really fascinated me because it happened in our state. We were flying it over our Statehouse, but in Georgia it was so blatant. It was down on the houses,” he says. “I’d look at my rear view mirror on my way to Athens and it looked like a sea of Confederate regiments back there.”
Since then, the Confederate flag has become one of the touchstone symbols for the African-American batik artist, a professor emeritus at S.C. State whose works have previously been on display at the Gibbes Museum of Art. The flag pops up again and again in his work as what can perhaps best be described as grotesque. In these pieces, the Confederate flag is transformed into a distorted, disembodied relic, a stain on the past — and the present. It’s a tattered and torn ghost that haunts the South.
“What I wanted to do early on was to create a flag that looked like it had been left in a trunk for 150 years and all of a sudden you pull it out of a trunk and you see the stain and the mildew,” he says.
For Twiggs, the flag allowed him to explore what the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood would much later call “the duality of the Southern thing.” The artist says, “I was always fascinated by the contradictions of the South — the hospitality on one hand and the Southern past, slavery and all of that. And so you had these dual perceptions of the South.”
But as important as that was, Twiggs was also drawn to the flag’s simplicity and the allure of the St. Andrew’s cross and the letter “X.”
“It’s a powerful graphic statement,” he says. And so Twiggs became fascinated with the X-shaped signs that are often found at railroad crossings and he began incorporating them into his work, most notably in his series called Crossings. In that series, the X takes on a haunting, nearly foreboding connotation, as it hovers over Twiggs’ human figures, largely faceless figures that take on the appearance of shadows even when they are a color other than black or gray. In the process, the railroad crossing calls upon the African-American journey from slavery to freedom and later to equality. Along the way, personal prejudices and institutional racism blocked their path.
“I thought in the South, we had to cross over that,” Twiggs adds. “The flag has been with us. It has kept all of those things going.”
Sometime later, Twiggs took the X and the idea of a crossing one step further, transforming it into a symbol for death itself, the final crossing.
“We human beings in life go through a series of crossings,” he says. “You might lose a loved one. You might lose a mother or father. You might get divorced. All of those are just things in our lives that we have to cross over.”
Today, all of these symbols come together in perhaps one of Twiggs’s most powerful works to date, Requiem for Mother Emanuel No. 3. In this piece — which recently sold at a Spoleto USA auction for $13,000 — the Emanuel AME Church is captured at an angle as if something has shaken its very foundations. Meanwhile, an ugly smudge of a Confederate flag — tattered and frayed — is smeared across the church’s facade like a fresh wound. Below the flag and the church are nine stark Xs.
Requiem for Mother Emanuel No. 3 stands in stark contrast to some of the more treacly works that have been created following the tragic events of June 17. In fact, it may be one of just a handful of artistic representations that even attempts to capture the horror of that day.
“When the Mother Emanuel incident happened, obviously, I was very moved. I had been to the Emanuel Church. I had been to Charleston,” Twiggs says, before turning his attention back to the flag, the subject of so many of his paintings since the 1970s. “What I tried to do is show it as a ragged instrument that now has bloody connotations because you see there is blood sprayed all over it.”
No. 3 is the third of four works in the Charleston 2015 series, one of which uses another popular motif, a target symbol. In this case, the target is over a man running, a clear call back to the shooting of Walter Scott. Another titled “Last Flag” harkens back to the final days of the Confederate flag at the Statehouse, a move that would not have happened if not for the deaths of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and his eight parishioners. The flag features a lone African-American and a Confederate flag flying high above him, except this time the flag has no power over him. It’s disintegrating.