Flags and banners at the Wende Museum: its most moving exhibition ever!
The main exhibition space. | Eric Gordon / People's World

CULVER CITY, Calif. — Now before you get overly excited, I mean “moving” in the sense that flags and banners tend to flutter with the passing breeze. Their constant interaction with physical and visual space, even hanging from a pole, much less being waved at a demonstration, is exactly what makes a flag different from a poster, painting, or mural.

Almost every nation and movement in history has its culture of banners. Even the stateless anarchists (whom you will also find at the Wende exhibition). I remember an anarchist flag I once saw that had several symbolically colored strips flowing separately from a flagpole, but what was most important about the flag, I was informed, were the open spaces between them.

The Medium is the Message: Flags and Banners is on display at the Wende Museum through Sun., Oct. 23, and is well worth a visit. An accompanying exhibit of Relics of the Cold War: Photographs by Martin Roemers makes a visit especially rewarding, as you’ll be “moving” outside the old Armory building proper into the back garden area, where Roemers’s photographs continue.

Going back many centuries, and originally used to identify soldiers in battle and ships in international waters, flags represent large geographic territories or royal realms (when warriors fought not for their country but for their king—or their Pope). Like monuments and national anthems, they intend to reinforce a sense of identity based on a shared past, present, and future; and in some cases to remind people who is counted “in” and who is counted “out.” In that regard, consider “national” flags that bear specific religious symbolism that not every citizen might care to identify with, or our own national anthem which, in one verse almost never sung but still officially part of the song, enslaved people in America are warned they’d better not try to escape! No wonder people take a knee!

Socialist countries of the 20th and 21st centuries also produced their share of flags and banners, and still do. They were omnipresent at military parades and national demonstrations, sports events, schools, and public gatherings. Apart from national flags (and each of the Soviet republics, for example, had its own), many organizations produced their own richly decorated flags and banners. The Wende Museum holds over 2000 of these ornamental textiles in its collection, but only a very few, less than three dozen, are able to be shown here in one exhibition, carefully curated for variety, range, and interest. Most are from the Eastern Bloc countries, but a few come from China, Vietnam, and Cuba. There’s even a French banner saying “Pour la défense de la paix” (Defend peace) left behind and archived during an early post-war festival of the World Federation of Democratic Youth.

Volos (The Hair Group), Soviet hippie flag, 1975, recreated 2018 by Debra Marlin, denim, various fabrics, pom poms, bells / Gordon/PW.

One oddly shaped banner in the show is not an original, but a re-creation in 2018 by Debra Marlin. It was part of a Soviet “hippie” art show in September 1975 by “The Hair Group,” which was shut down and confiscated. Where it is now, if it is still extant, is unknown. But from a photograph of the installation, a new banner was sewn. Recalling the bright red of the Communist flag, it calls for a “World Without Borders.”

In four discrete display cases, homemade banners are displayed from the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), the military arm of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, followers of Stepan  Bandera. The Banderists, active between 1942 and 1949, engaged in guerrilla warfare against the USSR during the Nazi invasion and occupation, aiming to establish “a free and autonomous Ukraine, independent from the Soviet Union.” Though the didactics at the Wende claim that by 1943 and 1944, UPA “officially rejected all ‘racial and ethnic exclusivity,’” after World War II, its militia continued to fight the next-door People’s Republic of Poland until 1947, and the Soviet Union until 1949. The Soviets dismantled this pro- or in fact fascist group, seizing the four banners in this exhibition and placing them “in a secret KGB archive that was decommissioned in the 1990s. The Wende Museum acquired them in 2002.” These are fascinating historical artifacts certainly worthy of being exhibited at this particular time, though of course we are not asked to endorse what they stood for in Ukraine—and in the Azov Battalion and many other quarters still do.

The Wende often contemporizes and contextualizes its exhibitions by adding recent artworks offering critical reflection on the here and now. Artists from protest and counterculture movements worldwide have repurposed flags to change or subvert their original meaning for decades, and many such examples are included on the surrounding walls of the museum. Some are émigré artists from socialist lands, while others are from the U.S. or other places.

I mentioned at least one anarchist in the show, and that would be Carolina Caycedo, a Colombian born in London and now living in Los Angeles. Three of her banner series, initiated in 2010, are exhibited here atop one another, themselves forming a kind of flag with three stripes. “These banners bear personal and adopted statements (quotes),” Caycedo states, “that reflect my own social, political, economic, and feminine ethics and beliefs. They can also be read and used as invitations to action. The banners are inspired by visual culture: material from protests, manifestations, and direct action as places where democracy is built…. ‘Crisis is a Means to Govern’ is a quote by Tiquun, the French-Italian anarchist journal which published materials pertaining to anti-capitalist, anti-Statist, Situationist, and feminist movements…. ‘Trust Each Other’ rethinks the motto ‘In God We Trust’ while borrowing its color from US dollar bills. Finally, ‘Ni Dios, Ni Patrón, Ni Marido’ [Neither God, Nor Master, Nor Husband] quotes anarcho-feminist colors and statements.”

Carolina Caycedo: Banner series, nylon banners with nylon appliqué letters / Gordon/PW.

Others of the contemporary installations make similarly trenchant statements about nation, democracy, surveillance, alternative futures, aspects of modern-day capitalism, and other weighty themes. Explore the exhibition catalog. You will find all the images here with brief identification information. One additional thing I have to give the Wende a lot of credit for is its ability to scare up the necessary funding for such provocative, questioning work. This exhibition, for example, is generously supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Cotsen Foundation for Academic Research.

Relics of the Cold War

The Cold War, like all wars, created lasting consequences for people, and also on architecture and landscape. Years after Soviet troops went home, U.S. and NATO troops and materiel continue to dominate the security apparatus of Western and more recently Eastern Europe as well. Dutch photographer Martin Roemers began to explore the places the Cold Warriors left behind. By the time he initiated this project, in 1998, enough time had passed for the processes of decay to set in, graphically symbolizing the end of this pivotal time.

Joes Segal, Chief Curator and Director of Programming, speaks about Molly Surazhsky’s work ‘Dermokratizatsiya (Shitocracy),’ satin and organza, 2022 / Gordon/PW

Over the span of several years, Roemers conducted “photographic archeological research” on the physical remains of the Cold War era. He seeks out stillness in the remains of military infrastructure that is slowly and steadily being overtaken by nature. He finds rusting tanks and destroyed monuments, final resting places, and remnants of housing and schools for military families. Descending into underground bunkers, he captures a still present sense of paranoia and hyper-alertness. In ten countries, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, from London to Moscow, he finds enormous numbers of nuclear shelters, air force bases, shooting ranges, rocket launch pads, border fences, observation towers, and radar stations, all built with the shared fear of potentially Mutually Assured Destruction (not called MAD without reason).

Photographer Martin Roemers explains his photo taken in eastern England. Atomic bomb test laboratory, Orford Ness, United Kingdom. Here, research was conducted into the influence of vibration, shock, extreme temperatures, and g-force on atom bombs. / Gordon/PW

Relics of the Cold War is the reflection of global cultures that prepared for nuclear winter and their own demise. Yet the visual meditation on military infrastructure abandoned and left in disrepair also considers the will toward de-escalation and co-existence. Roemers’s images are iconic and haunting runes, a virtual museum of bare survival, a testament to the universe human beings came so close to bequeathing to the cockroaches. With all the current urgency around climate change, these images may yet speak to us about what will outlast us in our fragile biome. See more of his work at martinroemers.com.

The Wende Museum is located at 10808 Culver Blvd., Culver City 90230. Admission is free. The museum is open Fri., Sat., and Sun. from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Advance reservations are encouraged for parties of six or more. For inquiries, email info@wendemuseum.org or call (310) 216-1600. Free guided tours of the museum and exhibitions are offered on Fri., Sat., and Sun. at 1 p.m. The capacity for public tours is limited to 10 participants. Free parking is available in the city lots adjacent to the museum. (EV) charging stations are available nearby at the Veterans Memorial Building (4117 Overland Blvd) and Senior Center (4095 Overland Blvd).


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.