Cauleen Smith: Shiny Things for My Quartermaster – Seven Swallowtail Flags

Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (FMCAC) presents Shiny Things for My Quartermaster: Seven Swallowtail Flags, a new public art commission by Los Angeles-based artist and filmmaker Cauleen Smith, curated by guest curator Elizabeth Thomas. The suite of artist flags are installed above the main entrances to Landmark Building B, Pier 2, and the Festival Pavilion at Pier 3, and are on view from September 20, 2023 through September 2024.

The exhibition is free and open to the public. A free opening reception took place on Wednesday, September 20, 2023, 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at Pier 2 (artist and curator remarks occured at 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.). On Thursday, September 21, 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., Smith spoke as the guest of the Graduate Fine Arts program at the California College of the Arts. The event is free and open to the public.

Use these links to access .PDF files with more information about Cauleen Smith’s exhibition:

Cauleen Smith Program | Cauleen Smith Flags Map | Cauleen Smith YouTube Video

In a nod to its military past and inspired by the United States Army Quartermasters Corps flags that once flew over FMCAC’s campus, the flags pay homage to those who labored in those units – particularly Black service members limited by segregation – using recurring motifs from the artist’s previous works as well as the larger lexicon of Afrofuturism.

“I wanted the flags to perform a kind of time travel between the history and meaning of this space and the possibilities of another, future time,” said Smith. “What could be if we re-imagined the labor of logistics and care, envisioned different types of supplies to be stored and safeguarded, and reflected different values of equality and forms of social relations? With this series, I wanted to evoke a reality that didn’t exist and doesn’t still, but could.”

Fort Mason’s use as a United States military site dates to the Civil War, and beginning in the early 20th century, it served as a critical logistics and transport hub as a base for the Quartermasters Corps of the Army. By the late 1930s, Fort Mason’s three piers bore the insignia of the Quartermasters Corps and flew flags on its land-facing façades during World War II.

During Fort Mason’s heaviest use in WWII, 80 percent of nearly one million Black American soldiers were assigned to service and logistics units in the U.S. and abroad. As historian and professor Henry Louis Gates noted: “When black men volunteered for duty or were drafted following the Japanese sneak attack, they were relegated to segregated divisions and combat support roles, such as cook, quartermaster, and grave-digging duty. The military was as segregated as the Deep South.”

Though constrained by institutional racism, the contributions of Black quartermasters at Fort Mason and similar bases around the country were integral to the war effort and matched by the efforts of Black quartermasters near battle lines thousands of miles away.

Against this historical background, Smith places her new works, embracing and subverting the visual language of military symbology, including crossed swords, an American eagle, or the Quartermaster’s key.

Guest curator Elizabeth Thomas notes, “While the latter might evoke the physical work of storage and the safety ensured by supply chains, it also stands still against America’s history of slavery, segregation, and the containment of Black peoples. Even the burning candle in Smith’s They Got You Scared of the Dark points less to home fires or military beacons than a fraught escape from servitude.”

In this way, the artist challenges the dominance of major institutions like the military and official symbols as primary markers of human worth, asking instead: who got left out? How could they get back in? Do they want to? What other ways can humans exist with and for one another?

“As an arts hub focused on place-based exhibitions and installations, we are excited to present Cauleen Smith’s newest work, deeply rooted in this space,” said Frank Smigiel, FMCAC’s Director of Arts Programming and Partnerships. “We hope re-installation of these historic flag poles and the artist’s re-imagined flags inspire visitors to see the past, present, and hopes for the future across our campus and the wider community.”

The exhibition is free and open to the public, September 20, 2023 through Spring 2024, daily, at Pier 2.

About The Artist. Cauleen Smith is a Los Angeles–based interdisciplinary artist whose work reflects upon the everyday possibilities of the imagination. She actively invites engagement, and with much of the work, she employs a purposeful undermining of image and language to elicit contemplation. Smith’s films create worlds that expand on the discourse of mid-twentieth-century experimental filmmaking. Drawing from structuralism, third-world cinema, and science fiction, she assembles poetic compositions that gently reveal nuanced narratives, both familiar and frequently, purposefully opaque. Her text-based tapestries follow a historical tradition of heraldry. These banners, which can be understood as a social device symbolizing community organizing, declare personalized idioms sewn in script that simulates her own handwriting, lifted directly from her sketchbook. Through her installations, Smith constructs archetypes of the universe and she assembles miniature worlds using myriad items, which often include mundane object and figurines alongside symbols of colonialism, such as porcelain objects and potted plants, paired with disco balls, rocks and minerals, resulting in something otherworldly and musicological.

Born in Riverside, California, Smith grew up in Sacramento, received a bachelor’s of arts in Cinema at San Francisco State University and a master’s of fine arts from UCLA in the School of Theater Film and Television, where she is currently a professor in the Department of Art. She is the recipient of several grants and awards, including the 2022 Heinz Award; Guggenheim Fellowship; Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize; Ellsworth Kelly Award; The Herb Alpert Award in the Arts; and a Rauschenberg Residency.

Smith’s works have been featured in solo exhibitions at institutions such as Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, PA; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Chicago, IL; Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, MA; Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Houston, TX; and Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA, among others.

Smith’s only feature film, 1998’s “Drylongso,” was restored and theatrically re-released in 2023 with nearly 50 screenings. In September 2023, her work will feature in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Musical Thinking, New Video Art, and Sonic Strategies.

About the Curator: Elizabeth Thomas is a Bay Area-based writer, curator, and educator. She is currently working with Stephanie Dinkins and the ICA San Jose on a long-term public project exploring stories as community data at the intersection of A.I. and biotech, resulting in an archival forest and other media works. Recently she organized MYR for McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, an exhibition and screening program of artists who reckon with the decentering of the human in the time and scale of the universe, including projects based in scientific research and methods from A.I. and biotech. Past public projects include Michael Rakowitz’s participatory performance and radio show produced with Iraqi refugees and Iraq War soldiers, Radio Silence; and Katharina Grosse’s Psychylustro, a five-mile abstract painting in 7 passages, viewed from trains running along the Philadelphia-New York Amtrak line.

Image Information: #1: Cauleen Smith photo by Joshua Franzos.
# 2, #3, #4: Photos By Pat Mazzera.
# 5: Historic photograph of Pier 2 in 1953, when FMCAC was a military base. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

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