Israeli-American artist Dalya Luttwak has lived in the United States since 1972. After the 9/11 attacks, her feelings about the event began to be reflected in her work. She said although she felt welcomed when she arrived and had grown to feel a part of America, she “felt always a little bit like an outsider.”
“Something happened with 9/11,” the Chevy Chase resident said. “I asked, ‘Where do I fit in after this horrible disaster?’ So as an artist I went back to the symbolism.”
Luttwak’s painted metal sculpture “A Tribute to New York,” representing her visual response to unanswered questions that arose for her as an immigrant after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is among the works of 25 artists in a new exhibit that examines the meaning of the American flag.
For Whom It Stands, at Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, adds to the state’s 200th Star Spangled Banner celebration, in a manner that is “inclusive, culturally diverse and interactive,” according to the museum’s executive director, A. Skipp Sanders.
Unanswered questions were also the impetus to the museum’s exhibit.
Grace Wisher was a 13-year-old African-American indentured servant in the household of Mary Pickersgill, who sewed the original flag in 1812. Wisher contributed to the making of the flag but little else is known of her story, and her personal effects seem to have been lost to history. Investigating Wisher’s story and others surrounding the U.S. flag and its meaning is central to the theme of For Whom It Stands.
A flag is a collection of images, explained the exhibit’s curator, Michelle Joan Wilkinson. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything in and of itself, but when someone says what it means, it takes on significance. “That’s when we find our own mirror image in it,” she said.
Visitors are met with larger-than-life-size photo images that hang in the lobby entrance, created by Atlanta-based photographer Sheila Pree Bright. Printed on flag banner material, 15 people, including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlins-Blake, are shown holding the American flag in a manner that illustrates what the flag represents to them. The photos are black and white, but the flag is in full color. One woman cradles a section of the flag, another carries it over his back as if bearing a heavy load, another is on one knee in a prayerful pose, flag draped over her arms.
Inside, more than 100 objects are on display including painting, sculpture, photographs and artifacts that range from historic to contemporary. An interactive sound installation, researched and organized by music curator and vocal percussionist Shodekeh, features various renditions of the national anthem – from Baltimore jazz maven Ethel Ennis to Jimi Hendrix and includes interviews with the artists as well.
Luttwak’s piece is in a section that includes work by artists of many different ethnicities to represent the breadth of the American experience.
She described some of the symbols of her work – the American flag with its colors and shape, white picket fences, and the skyline of New York – things that, according to her, represent the American dream.
“[Ideas of the American dream], that’s what brought me to this country. Everything was so welcoming and easy, and after 9/11 I re-examined how I felt, who am I in America,” she explained. “I’m an outsider. America became very closed, very suspicious. I re-examined my approach to America, but I was examined by America, too.”
Her sculpture in the show, echoing colors and shapes of the American flag, portrays a white New York skyline, red lines “in flight” toward the skyline and blue anchors at the base. White represents hope according to Luttwak, and red represents blood, danger and action. The square blue anchors at the perimeter of the sculpture stand for stability – to represent that even though under attack, New York (and thus America) is stable at its core and will always rise hopeful regardless, she explained.
Luttwak said there was little interest in the series of seven sculptures titled “An American Dream” immediately after she created it. “The pain was so deep and so strong, now I’m showing it … years later, so I’ve come full circle.” she said.
Luttwak said that after she finished making the pieces, questions about where she fit in and what America meant for her became clearer. “I was reassured the choice [to come to the U.S.] was the right one and I’ll fight for America. … I’m re-examining my American dream.”
In September, a new body of work by Luttwak will be exhibited at the Greater Reston Arts Center. Show openings typically happen the second Thursday of the month, which this year falls on Sept. 11. The gallery owner offered to change the opening if she preferred. Luttwak would not have it. She replied, “[Terrorists] took away that day for so many years, that we should now reclaim it. So yes, I definitely want my exhibit to open on that day.”
For Whom It Stands is open Wednesdays through Sundays at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, 830 East Pratt St., Baltimore. For times and more information, call 443-263-1800 or go to rflewismuseum.org.
Melissa Gerr is senior reporter for Washington Jewish Week’s sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times.