SARASOTA, Florida. () – John Sims creates provocative multimedia and performative works that confront ‘Confederate iconography as symbols of visual terrorism and white domination in the context of African-American culture.’
This project, called Recoloration Proclamation, has been the main mission of a Sarasota-based artist, writer and activist for 20 years.
It began when a native of Detroit moved to Sarasota to teach visual mathematics at the Ringling College of Art and Design. He was amazed by the flags and monuments of the Confederacy he saw in the city. The Sims inspired a national return to Confederate symbols.
Recently, he has been demanding the “repair” of the local plantation.
The Sims’ projects over the years include the repainting of the Confederate flag in red, black and green with the Black Liberation flags. In 2004, he premiered an inflammatory installation at Gettysburg College, The Right Way to Hang the Confederate Flag, in which he hung the flag on a gallows. In 2015, he launched the Burn and Bury movement, which encourages people to burn the Confederate flag and bury it on Memorial Day and July 4.
When the negative press over the hanging flag hit his message, along with the knowledge that his presentation to the art world had limitations, he began writing an opeddy. Since then, his words have appeared in publications and news sites around Florida and around the world, including CNN, Al Jazeera and the Huffington Post.
“Op-ed writing is a key part of my job,” Sims said. “It helps me paint another dimensional picture of the urgency of these issues.”
After the death of George Floyd in 2020, the uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement and the national movement for the removal of Confederate monuments, the Sims began to think about those in Sarasota.
He discovered the Judy P. Benjamin Confederation Memorial in the historic Gamble Plantation State Park in Ellenton, a tribute to a man who was the Confederate Secretary of State. Benjamin fled to the Gamble Mansion as he left the country in the last days of the Civil War.
Former sugar plantation owned by Maj. By Robert Gamble, she was dedicated to the state by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1925.
When Sims visited the plantation, he felt “a tremendous feeling of sadness and shame, shame like an American.”
Sims was surprised that a Confederate memorial to a man considered the “Confederate brain” may be present in a taxpayer-funded state park. He called it “sl face to face” and was particularly outraged that there was no mention of those who were enslaved there.
In three papers published in the Tampa Bay Times last year, Sims called for a change in Confederate iconography and called for the repeal of Florida pro-Confederate laws and for the renaming and re-introduction of Gamble Plantation as a slave memorial.
Diane Wallman, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, turned to Sims after reading an article about the memorial. She has worked at Gamble Plantation as an archaeologist since 2017 and was also interested in changing the story and its more inclusive solution.
“I’ve been waiting for someone to take over in a town I don’t have as a college professor,” Wallman said.
But while Confederate relics were being removed from the rest of the country, Sims said he wanted to create a vision of what those sites would look like if they could become a memorial, a brand, and a memorial to the people held there.
The reimagining was a video animation called Freedom Memorial at Gamble Plantation. It is exhibited at the “Marking Monuments” exhibition of the University of South Florida at the Museum of Contemporary Art, compiled by Sarah Howard.
It opens with a reworked emblem and slowly moves around the grounds to the manor house, while a jazz version of the Dixie Confederacy song plays in the background. It is part of another of Sims’ projects, AfroDixie Remixes, in which the song Dixie is performed in various musical styles that put it on its head.
Its large Confederate black liberation flag flies over the land. The historical mark he created is:
“This former plantation, as a historic state park, as a memorial to the enslaved African people who have been to this country and beyond, as an ology for them and their descendants, is dedicated to the legacy of the seismic catastrophe of American slavery.” This space denotes a method of trade, property, and inhumanity that will forever haunt the spirit of “free” America. This space has been recaptured to mark the site of a possible transformational healing where enslavement will be freed, shame will be ashamed, and faith in the universal sovereignty of human rights will be restored. “
The Sims place a black obelisk in front of the castle, inscribed in gold with the names of famous families who were enslaved there.
Along with the video animation, “Marking Monuments” shows the physical marks created by Sims and his AfroConfederate flag: 12 Foot.
Wallman and The Sims created a four-part symposium called “Monuments, Marks, and Memory,” based on the operas and artwork of the Sims. The symposium took place over four sessions from late January to early February and invited panel discussions of artists, academics, activists, politicians, organizations, institutions and local communities. Topics were Reimagining Monuments, Response, Recovery and Redress.
One panel was held at Gamble Plantation, although Wallman said there was no official response to the Sims’ call for action.
The last session was Sims’ keynote speech, in which he demanded that plantations become “living monuments of freedom, liberty and justice and act as a physical biology for the victims and descendants of American slavery.” He proposes that “American plantations be confiscated, confiscated and placed in the National Trust under the supervision of the National Park Service and under the supervision of the African American community.”
Sims said the symposium went well and that people were interested.
“Writing was an important element,” he said. “I think it’s the power of artists who are able to motivate and inspire the symposium.” It helped navigate people who thought about and talked about these things. “
He said the next step was to create an organization focused on making changes to Gamble Plantation. He hopes to be a role model for other communities.
Writing letters is a major part of Sims’ 2020 film: (Di) Visions of America, which he created as an artist at the Ringling Museum’s residence last fall. It was screened in January and February.
It begins with a letter read aloud by Dr. Lisa Merritt to a patient suffering from COVID-19, stating that blacks are more at risk of serious cases and death.
Sims reads a letter to police calling for the brutality and death of blacks. The letter was published as a paper in June at the Orlando Sentinel.
Chandra Carty, a descendant of a person who was enslaved to Gamble Plantation, reads a letter to her ancestor and asks what his life is like.
Sims also created an art video game called Crown Kill, which is featured in the film. This was inspired by his self-portrait, in which he imagines that he is dating with fear. In a game reminiscent of Space Invaders, players fight coronaviruses and avoid bats. It can be played at johnsimsprojects.com.
He said the way forward was for people to maintain social and political pressure, as well as pressure to change the curriculum. Sims said the work he does will be part of history to respond to social justice issues.
It also encourages people to write, whether they are operas or each other, if original ideas are expressed.
“Developing a relationship with your own thoughts is a step forward,” he said. “Think about ideas and express them so that people can accept them and have a real dialogue.”
The “Marking Monuments” can be seen until March 6 at the USF Museum of Contemporary Art, which is closed to the public. You can view the exhibition online at ira.usf.edu. You can find more information about John Sims at johnsimsprojects.com.