While the origins of flags are unknown, a flag is traditionally defined as “a distinctive piece of fabric used as a symbol, a signaling device, or for decoration.” In Oceans and Stars and Tulips, Ambrose Rhapsody Murray presents a body of work to both reconstruct and deconstruct our collective vision of a flag. Each piece is a flag or family crest. They are odes and honorific symbols dedicated to the artist’s family members. These reimagined flags constructed from mostly silks, other textiles and wood are conglomerations of swirling memories, familial interconnection and tools for Black legacy building.
Some of the first known flags were created from Chinese silks during the Middle Ages. By using mostly silks, Murray reaches back to the material origins of flags and the early economies of trade that are embedded in these raw materials. Through this body of work, Ambrose investigates cross-continental histories of trade and colonialism, as well as the intimate reaches of state power in their own family system. Inspired by Lisa Lowe’s The Intimacies of Four Continents, this body of work seeks to blur the ideological bounds between what is public and private. By anchoring the work in their own family stories and personal histories, Murray’s flags reveal the intimate reaches of state power and blur the supposed distinctions between governing bodies and the intimate registers of our private lives.
Historically, flags have been used as symbols of power towards colonial constructions of sovereignty, including aboard ships for maritime communication. With this work, Murray asks what their own flags may communicate across the waters? The flags presented to the viewer are calling to a borderless diaspora of people. What could they communicate to the souls that never left the Atlantic? Could these constructions of fabric and imagery be signals of safety? Each work asks what it means to belong to a people with no governing protection, and demonstrates how the descendants of slaves have kept each other safe through traditions of spiritual protection and family-making in the Atlantic World. What does it mean for a group of people to organize itself around memory? What does it feel like, to build an identity from something soft and bright? Or to signal yourself to others through veils and vestiges of collective memory? This body of work ultimately belongs to a Black tradition of protecting, preserving and re-telling our own stories and cultural legacies through art.