WHAT DOES it mean to be an American? Can that definition be universal? Can it evolve?
Acclaimed Atlanta artist Sheila Pree Bright sought the answers to that question in her Young Americans series, which she began in 2006 when Barack Obama was running for president.
“All of my work has always dealt with the issue of the unheard and giving the unheard a voice, and that was the young people,” says Bright. “When you think about young people, you think of the negative.”
So Bright sought out young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 and photographed them with the American flag in a pose of their choosing. She also asked them to make a statement.
- Anjre Kerr from the Young Americans series, 2007
“I had one question: What does it mean to be an American in the 21st century?” she recounts. “I was the observer and they made the statement. One thing I got out of all of them, whether they were African-American or Asian or even white, all of them were troubled with the Bush administration and what was going on in their world. They knew they had to take on the burden and it’s going to be passed on to all of them, but to all of them, the flag is still the stars and stripes. Nobody actually wanted to burn the flag because they still actually respected America. But also, they were sick of the crumbling institution.”
The notion of the American flag being used as a symbol for a political ideology is perhaps even more relevant today than it was in 2006, partially due to the NFL’s ongoing issue over the national anthem, but Bright doesn’t have any plans to resurrect the series.
“I’ve had some of the original Young Americans contact me to ask if I would do the project with Generation Z, the biggest generation in history,” she says. “An evolution would really speak to our current political climate —we’re living in reality, but it’s so surreal. I feel like I’ve already done that before, though. When it comes to artwork, you can always continue it in different ways.”
The Telfair is adding Young Americans to its ongoing exhibition “Complex Uncertainties: Artists in Postwar America,” which examines artists’ responses to historical issues and societal issues.
Bright’s work fits seamlessly in the exhibition, as she has always been concerned with the younger generation’s response to their world.
The Young Americans series evolved from another of Bright’s projects, #1960Now, which she began in 2013 after Trayvon Martin’s murder.
“I was in the studio photographing photos of the elders of the civil rights movement that changed the face of the nation, and they were young at that age, too,” she recalls. “These were the unknown ones—it was very important for me to photograph the unknown ones. It took so much more than Martin Luther King, Jr. for the movement.”
She saw the parallel between the young civil rights leaders in the 1960s and the young people organizing protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland.
- Jenny Liu from the Young Americans series, 2008
“I decided to go to the ground to see what was happening with the young people, and they were fighting the same fight. Nothing has changed,” she laments. “Now you have the Black Lives Matter movement, the Me Too movement, the March for Our Lives movement —it’s a protest within a protest. We as Americans do not come together as a people; we live in our tribes and talk about intersectionality, but do we really want to come together? This is going to be the hard part. A lot of us have our own ideologies and it’s hard to break that. My whole purpose of my artwork is to use it to create dialogue.”
In this moment, Bright’s dialogue speaks to the uncertainty we face.
“We live in a world of uncertainty right now,” she muses. “We are all working through it and it comes to us. I feel that, with this body of work, you can actually learn from the young people in 2006 and see that hasn’t really changed, either. Instead of looking at it and sharing it, how can we move forward? How do we evolve? Nobody really knows. I think we have to go with our gut sometimes.”