Miguel Braceli is a Venezuelan-born artist and educator, whose multidisciplinary work includes several participatory projects with students, such as Here Lies A Flag (2021), Here We Are (2019) and Enterrar Las Banderas en el mar (2019).
In each of the aforementioned works of art, themes of communal identity, whether cultural or geopolitical, are performed in a collaborative action. The common materials-based denominator is the symbolic context of the flag in relationship to nationality and geographical boundaries.
There are generally a lot of elements to analyze when discerning a flag, which makes them apropos for an art and education-based project. Flags are aesthetic objects that often utilize the elements of art and principles of design. They are also an exemplary symbol that most of us associate with land, government and identity. The combination of civics, creativity and culture is why flag making is an effective activity in studio art classrooms, as well as in the studios of professional artists.
In addition to visual characteristics, there are performative rituals connected to the display and care of flags. Braceli’s Here We Are and Here Lies A Flag are socially engaged re-presentations of traditional displays and disposals of flags. In both works of art, students enact a specific gesture or process that links historical customs with contemporary global themes. In doing so, the projects divert from convention towards a radical new meaning that expresses concern for marginalized individuals who are not truly represented by a landmass or government.
Here We Are playfully transforms the solemn act of a ceremonial flag raising. Instead of military members, students from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) hoist a living flag in front of the state house in Baltimore, Maryland. The flag’s minimalist construction allowed for each student to be symbolically represented in the design. The constitution of students who became elements of the living flag, signifies a microcosm of the diversity within the student body and the city at large. According to Braceli, “This project seeks to reflect on the concepts of city, citizens and citizenship from the poetic gesture of the construction of the territory through the ceremony of raising a flag.” The setting of Baltimore and its role as a sanctuary city is important to the work’s context as an embodiment of humanitarian issues like immigration, DACA, civil rights and gender equality. Many schools throughout the United States are also addressing these issues, with some educational institutions becoming sanctuary campuses.
In Here Lies A Flag, Braceli and students from New Rochelle High School (in Westchester County, New York) dug a large hole in the ground in order to perform the action of burying a flag. This metaphorical process provides several different conceptual and pragmatic outcomes. First and foremost, it serves as an expressive means of acknowledging the cultural history of the land. Our contemporary nations have been established on lands with a rich history of past and present civilizations that have utilized and maintained the land prior to the arrival of colonial settlers. More often than not, the colonialists displaced Indigenous communities. The American flag, with its fifty stars and stripes representing each state in the nation, encapsulates this displacement. By planting the flag into longstanding Indigenous soil, this symbol of geocultural identity negates and erases the hundreds of Indigenous nations who established themselves on the land for generations before Europeans showed up. This reality and the ongoing struggle for equal, equitable and justice-based sovereignty and representation, is the crux of Here Lies A Flag.
Braceli describes the artwork as “a humanist approach to nations and borders, but through a radical learning experience from the possibilities of art” (Braceli, 2021). After lowering an American flag from its flag post in Davenport Park, Braceli and the students hoisted a custom flag they created to represent a borderless nation replete with intersectional portrayals of overlapping identities. The long white flag stretches out from the pole to the waterfront, forming a symbolic embodiment of a nation for all individuals. The students held an assembly in front of the flag where they critically contemplated what flags stand for and wrote down vocabulary words (i.e. unity, patriarchy, pride, corruption, supremacy and propaganda) that signified both positive and negative affordances of flags. As the concluding act to the collaborative performance, the flag was buried in the park’s soil.
Education is the foundation for generations upon generations to take on active roles in their local and global communities. Creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration are all key frameworks of both contemporary educational curricula and Braceli’s projects with students. Student participation is essential to underscore the necessity of finding creative ways to communicate and critically examine issues affecting the entire world’s population. The students who collaborate with Braceli are indicative of the larger populace who are experiencing sweeping social, cultural and environmental transformations. While everyone on the planet is already affected by these conditions, the younger generations are going to be even more jeopardized. The climate crisis for example will dramatically alter life for everyone under forty-years-old, according to a study in the journal Science (see: Chow, 2021). The global climate crisis exacerbates geopolitical tensions. Therefore, if things continue to trend downwards, we can expect to experience more conflicts over land and more refugees fleeing oppressive conditions.
Braceli’s work raises awareness for the communal impact of art and education in terms of each discipline’s importance and relevance to our individual lives and shared histories. Without being didactic, these projects enable myriad understandings about the many aspects of our identity through experiential participation with peers and direct interaction with materials. In his essay for a concept he coins “The Naked School,” Braceli (2020) states that “Educational spaces must insert themselves into the reality of our environmental, social, and political contexts so that we may learn from and act on them.”
Through a creative process that involves dialectic critical thinking and transformative social action, Braceli and his student collaborators turn existing geopolitical environments into brand new possibilities, which envision the world as one big borderless community.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Braceli, Miguel (@miguelbraceli). “Today we’re meeting with many students to bury a flag and here is the grave!,” Instagram, 22 September 2021, www.instagram.com/p/BSaisVuDk7S/?taken-by=natgeo.
Braceli, Miguel. “The Naked School.” Master’s Thesis, Maryland Institute College of Art, 2020. https://www.miguelbraceli.com/single-post/the-naked-school.
Chow, Denise. “Triple jeopardy: Children face dark future of climate disasters,” NBC News, 28 September 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/triple-jeopardy-children-face-dark-future-climate-disasters-rcna2304
Houser, Neil Owen. “A Collaborative Processing Model for Art Education.” Art Education, vol. 44, no. 2, National Art Education Association, 1991, pp. 33–37, https://doi.org/10.2307/3193303.
“Working Together: Teaching Collaboration in the Arts,” The Kennedy Center. https://www.kennedy-center.org/education/resources-for-educators/classroom-resources/articles-and-how-tos/articles/educators/working-together-teaching-collaboration-in-the-arts/