Bronx-based artist Tasha Dougé isn’t afraid of artistic destruction

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Photo courtesy Tasha Dougé

Bronx-based conceptual mixed media artist Tasha Dougé’s rendering of the American flag on display at the Longwood Art Gallery is not a flag at all. In fact, the piece, “This Land is OUR Land,” more closely resembles Fourth of July streamers. Stripes of braided synthetic hair are unraveled and slumped away from their chicken wire anchor, cotton ball stars displaced from their canonical top-left hand mainstay and chicken-wire matrix laid bare. The composition slouches on a gallery stool, its supposed patriotic messaging sterile.

One of Dougé’s first forays into the art world — the artist created “This Land is OUR Land” 10 months after starting her practice in 2016 — the piece in its undone state is not what Dougé intended nor forged. In its intact state, the five-foot by three-foot piece had been a complete recreation of the American flag with synthetic braiding hair stripes woven into chicken wire, a nod to African hair shop tradition, and fixed cotton ball stars. So when the artist mid-studio run on March 27, 2023, found the piece in disfigured state — effected by a critter in the building, Dougé thinks — she was hit with an acute grief. A telling window lay open and the piece’s garbage tarp sheathe, its last bastion of protection, shed.

“I came in to find my studio in complete disarray,” Dougé told the Bronx Times. “I died that day.”

Though the scene temporarily deadened the unassuming artist’s sensibility, on display in the Longwood Art Gallery is only one — and the most recent — of the piece’s histories with the dramatic destruction that Dougé calls shedding.

“This Land is OUR Land,” nicknamed “Justice,” is thematically moored by shedding. Born in and inspired by the era of signature Trumpism “Make America Great Again,” the piece aesthetically epitomizes Dougé’s desire to shed prevailing notions about the makers of “great” America. With its material references to African American enslavement, labor and hair culture, the piece wants to reframe American essentialism as both forged and owned by enslaved Africans and their Black successors rather than white landowners. In an Essence article, Dougé frames this impetus, “When I think about this nation as a whole, it wouldn’t be what it is now without the contributions of enslaved Africans.”

Tasha Dougé (center) protests the death of George Floyd with "This Land is OUR Land."
Tasha Dougé (center) protests the death of George Floyd with “This Land is OUR Land.”Photo courtesy Tasha Dougé

The piece endured a gradual somatic shedding, too — a fact of its materials and movement. After the piece debuted at the 2016 “UNBOUGHT AND UNBOSSED” exhibition at the Asian Arts Institute, it took an east coast tour from 2016 to 2020, appearing at the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center (2016), Harlem’s Health Gallery (2017), Bronx Art Space, RISD (2018), Brown University’s Watson Institute (2020), and New York Assembly’s Room Gallery (2020) among other locations.

Outside the gallery space, the piece, in service of its original messaging, rubbed shoulders with demonstrators at the 2020 George Floyd protests in Washington, D.C., waded in the waters of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool on the anniversary of the March on Washington, and appeared at the opening of the Black Smithsonian in D.C. As it moved, the piece metamorphosed. Braids loosened and frayed, and cotton balls sagged off the flag.

“I was constantly relishing in her metamorphosis in real time,” Dougé said.

For Dougé, who had already begun patching over her lexicon of destruction with the vocabulary of artistic evolution, the acute grief of “Justice”’s destruction was transient. And the shedding hardly defanged the original ambitions of the piece, just adjusted them according to the artist’s present considerations.

“In seeing her in real time, in the remnants of her previous existence […], it’s making me think about—as I said, she was nicknamed “Justice”—what concepts of justice do I need to shed? What are things I need to reevaluate in the current state where we have the same people running for the presidency again? […] What does it mean to ask for justice in a corrupted system that is working exactly in the way that it was intended to work?”

“This Land is OUR Land” was never meant as a symbol of the idyll America, but its slouched, molted state clarified Dougé’s artistic duende. And now, Dougé says, “I’m offering the shedding process as a testimony to someone else.”

The artist requested that an image of the art in its current state not be included in this article.

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