Crowds formed outside the windows of the University of Miami art gallery in Wynwood and stared at the display: Ku Klux Klan hoods made out of American flags.
Associate Professor of Sculpture Billie Grace Lynn showcased “American Masks” as part of UM’s annual faculty art show.
She first created the masks in 2006 as a reaction to the racism she witnessed growing up in Louisiana. At the time, she called her display, “American Empire.” After the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, she decided it was time to showcase the hoods again. She renamed the display “American Masks” to shed light on what she called racism disguised as patriotism.
“I watched the Charlottesville riots and saw people carrying American flags, Nazi flags and the Civil War battle cry side-by-side,” Lynn said. “It made me think about how people are hiding their bigotry and racism behind the American flag.”
Gallery director Milly Cardoso said it was Lynn’s choice to bring the piece and put it by the window, like store-front mannequins.
This is not the first time Lynn has flaunted the masks to the Miami community. Last October, at one of Wynwood’s monthly art walks, she and the five students in her advanced sculpture class wore the hoods and walked the streets of the art-centric neighborhood, holding signs that said, “Bigotry is not patriotic.”
One of the students, who wanted to remain anonymous, described wearing the masks as challenging and overwhelming. Putting the mask on immediately stripped the student of identity and individualism.
“As a Jewish person wearing this KKK mask and to not be mentally affected is very challenging,” the student said, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a minor in sculpture art.
When looking out of the two tiny holes of the mask, the student said there was a “fish-eye view of the world.” The deliberately narrow and distorted view could be another way Lynn was making a statement against the originators of the hoods.
Lynn’s class wore the masks in Wynwood because of the area’s notoriously open-minded community. The group reasoned it would be able to teach understanding rather than hate.
The student said they received mostly positive feedback from onlookers who gave them thumbs ups or took pictures to post on Facebook but were eventually thrown out of the Wynwood Walls when its security guards were instructed to remove them from the property.
Lynn said Miami is an “apolitical environment,” with many residents from Latin America who aren’t heavily involved in U.S. politics.
However, with her art and the tense political climate, Lynn was able to successfully ignite a conversation.
“I always thought of art as an excuse for a conversation,” Lynn said. “Just like democracy.”
Some onlookers scrutinized Lynn’s desecration of the American flag and missed the fundamental point of her argument, she said.
“It is interesting to note that many are concerned about what I have done to the flag, but where is that same outrage to those who carry the American flag next to a Nazi flag,” Lynn said.
No matter the outcry, she is determined to let the art stand on its own and decided against putting up any signage to explain the work. Lynn has an unexpected attitude toward onlookers who don’t like her work.
“Good, there is nothing to like about it,” she said. “It is a mirror of what is going on in this country.”