Holman’s Shocking Icons Illuminate Subtler Civil War

Today, The Examiner dove deep into the many layers of Michael Holman to better understand his provocative artwork. Read on to discover Michael’s diverse family history and how it informs his current creative process.

Holman’s shocking icons illuminate subtler Civil War

By: Virginia Pelley
July 30, 2009


Michael Holman, who will exhibit his provocative Confederate flag paintings at White Walls in The City on Saturday, is used to pushing buttons on the subject of race. When his family moved back to San Francisco in the ’60s and Holman started the sixth grade, he thought his world travels as an Army brat would make him interesting and popular among his classmates. He was wrong.

A black boy followed Holman into the cloakroom and drawled, “Hey, man — are you a soul brother, or are you a surfer?”

Holman, who is black and white (his parents are of mixed race) wasn’t sure how to respond, so he invited the boy over to try out his longboard skateboard. That evidently tipped the scale toward “white” for the boy, so he punched Holman, and the two started fighting.

“In the suburbs, the white kids wanted to kick my a– for being black, and in the city the black kids wanted to kick my a– for not being black enough,” Holman says.

Today, Holman explores race and identity on canvas. Since the early ’90s, he says, he has been drawn to the image of the Confederate flag and its meaning in American culture. In the centers of his paintings of this contentious emblem of the Civil War, Holman places such items as a racist lawn jockey and the 7-Eleven logo, playing with icons of commercialism and symbols that are distinctly American.

“My brother asked, ‘Why do you want to glorify this symbol of slavery?’” Holman says. “But I think I’m attempting to persuade the viewer to rethink American history as a way to go forward. How would this country be different without black people in its history?

“We are in a social and racial political detente,” he says. “A Cold War between blacks and whites. There are rules. If you do certain things, you’re a traitor, a commie.”

Holman played a pioneering role in urban and hip-hop culture in the early ’80s East Village art scene. He produced and directed the first B-Boy movie, “Catch a Beat,” in 1981 and created the first hip-hop TV show, “Graffiti Rock,” which featured The New York City Breakers (whom Holman managed), Kool Moe Dee, Run-DMC, Vincent “Prince Vince” Gallo and actress Debi Mazar. Holman wrote about hip-hop culture for the “East Village Eye” and “Art Forum,” and with friend Jean-Michel Basquiat formed the experimental band Gray. Holman also wrote the script for “Basquiat,” the 1996 film about the renowned artist.

“This symbol forces me to examine my own family’s identity and history being connected to the force that seeks to enslave them,” he says of the Confederate flag. “It’s too compelling to leave alone.”


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