What’s in a Flag? Dr Richard Benjamin on Larry Achiampong’s Pan African Flags // Liverpool Biennial 2021

Larry Achiampong, Pan African Flag for the Relic Travellers' Alliance, 2021. Installation view at Dr Martin Luther King Jr. building, Liverpool Biennial 2021. Photography_ Mark McNulty-web

What do flags have to say today? The International Slavery Museum’s Dr Richard Benjamin approaches this question via our collective past, and Liverpool Biennial artist Larry Achiampong’s Pan African Flags For the Relic Travellers’ Alliance…

You probably walk by several a day without giving them a second thought. Yet on some occasions (for example, a major sporting event), they are much more visible (or risible depending on your take on things). They can make an appearance out of your neighbour’s bedroom window, in pubs, restaurants, or on civic buildings. Regardless of where you stand on this newfound flourishing of flags – which, for some make them puff out their chest with a nationalistic vigour, or, for others, bring about a sneer – they have your attention. And that is the thing about flags. They mean something, and they evoke an emotion.

They can also be instructive – the nautical letter for S Sierra, which looks like a Josef Albers with its rich blue square on a white backdrop, denotes the rather futuristic-sounding “I am operating astern propulsion.” Some flags can be symbols of hard-fought identities, eliciting pride in a rainbow of colour; others, offensive and divisive. Can an appropriated ancient symbol, sometimes meaning well-being, ever rid itself of its association with fascism? And is a confederate flag carried through Congress an act of sedition? They can also be visually appealing.

And it was the latter that first got me interested in flags, colourful and engaging flags like Djibouti and St Lucia with le gros et le petit pitons reaching to the sky, and my favourite, the Golden Arrowhead of Guyana, designed by Whitney Smith, an American vexillologist, for the newly independent nation.  I was familiar with it too, as it was the country of my father.

“Larry Achiampong’s Pan African Flags mean something: land, people, struggle, hope”

And I also like looking at Larry Achiampong’s Pan African Flags For the Relic Travellers’ Alliance. Especially the flag outside the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. building on the Royal Albert Dock. A smorgasbord of colour: green, black, red, and yellow, billowing in the Dock’s gusty splendour. And like all flags, these colours mean something. Land, people, struggle, hope. When placed in a Pan African context, they have a story to tell, a story of countries that rode on Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s “wind of change” speech to the Parliament of South Africa in 1960. And how national consciousness was blowing through the continent of Africa. Of dynamism, of political union, and the decolonization of a continent.

Each of these Pan African flags (dotted around the city for the duration of the Biennial) features 54 stars representing the 54 countries of Africa. On the flag outside the MLK, the stars sit atop a green pyramid, shrouded in a sea of red and yellow sky. Achiampong has designed a series of symbolic and modern flags. In Liverpool, outside an iconic building, named after an iconic individual, one which will become the front door of an expanded International Slavery Museum, one of them promotes a feeling of community, as it beckons you towards it. And when you are up close, you feel a real sense of continuing that journey, up the steps and into the building itself.

This is a flag you don’t walk by without giving it a second thought.

Dr Richard Benjamin heads the International Slavery Museum team at National Museums Liverpool. 

Larry Achiampong (b. 1984, London, UK) lives and works in London, UK. Achiampong’s solo and collaborative projects employ imagery, aural and visual archives, live performance and sound to explore ideas surrounding class, cross-cultural and post-digital identity. Drawing on his Ghanaian roots, his works examine his communal and personal heritage – in particular, the intersection between the postcolonial position and pop culture. 

This new text was commissioned by Liverpool Biennial and is part of a creative-critical series published exclusively by The Double Negative. Writers were given free rein and approximately 500 words to respond to any Biennial 2021 work in any style, tone or format that they wished. #LB2021

Visit Larry’s Pan African Flags For the Relic Travellers’ Alliance at the following sites: St. George’s Hall; St. John’s Gardens; Liverpool Central Library; Liverpool ONE; Exchange Flags; Liverpool Parish Church; Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Building; Edmund Gardner Vessel; Cunard Building; St. Luke’s, Bombed Out Church. All free to visit until Sunday 27 June 2021

Image: Larry Achiampong, Pan African Flag for the Relic Travellers’ Alliance, 2021. Installation view at Dr Martin Luther King Jr. building, Liverpool Biennial 2021. Photography: Mark McNulty


Posted on 25/06/2021 by thedoublenegative