John Sims creates provocative multimedia and performance works that confront “Confederate iconography as symbols of visual terrorism and white supremacy in the context of African American culture.”
That project, called Recoloration Proclamation, has been the Sarasota-based artist, writer and activist’s primary mission for 20 years.
It began when the Detroit native moved to Sarasota to teach visual mathematics at the Ringling College of Art and Design. He was stunned by the Confederate flags and memorials he saw in town. Sims inspired a national pushback on Confederate symbols.
More recently, he is calling for the “redressing” of a local plantation.
Sims’ projects over the years include recoloring the Confederate flag in the red, black and green of the Black Liberation flags. In 2004, he premiered an inflammatory installation at Gettysburg College, The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag, in which he hung the flag from 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 the Fourth of July.
When negative press over the flag hanging interfered with his message, coupled with the realization that presenting it to the art world had limitations, he started writing op-eds. Since then, his words have appeared in publications and on news websites around Florida and the world, including CNN, Al Jazeera and the Huffington Post.
“The op-ed writing is a core component to my work,” Sims said. “It helps me paint another dimensional picture to the urgency of these issues.”
After George Floyd’s 2020 death, the uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement and the national movement to remove Confederate monuments, Sims began thinking about the ones in Sarasota.
He had discovered the Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at Gamble Plantation Historic State Park in Ellenton, a tribute to the man who was secretary of state for the Confederacy. Benjamin fled to the Gamble Mansion while making an escape out of the country in the last days of the Civil War.
The former sugar plantation owned by Maj. Robert Gamble was donated to the state by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1925.
When Sims visited the plantation he felt “an overwhelming sense of grief and shame, shame as an American.”
Sims was astonished that a Confederate monument for the man considered “the brains of the Confederacy” could be present at a state park funded by taxpayers. He called it a “slap in the face” and was especially outraged that there is no mention or marker of those who were enslaved there.
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In three op-eds published in the Tampa Bay Times last year, Sims called for a change in Confederate iconography and petitioned for the repeal of Florida’s pro-Confederacy laws and for the renaming and reimagining of the Gamble Plantation as a slave memorial.
Diane Wallman, assistant professor in the department of anthropology at the University of South Florida, reached out to Sims after reading the op-ed about the memorial. She’d been working at the Gamble Plantation as an archaeologist since 2017 and was also interested in changing the narrative and making it more inclusive.
“I’d been waiting for someone to take this on in a capacity that I don’t have as a college professor,” Wallman said.
But while Confederate monuments were being removed in the rest of the country, Sims said he wanted to create a vision of what these places would look like if they could become a memorial, marker and monument to the people who were held in captivity there.
That reimagining became a video animation called Freedom Memorial at Gamble Plantation. It’s on display in the University of South Florida’s Contemporary Art Museum’s group show “Marking Monuments,” curated by Sarah Howard.
It opens with the reimagined sign and slowly pans through the grounds to the mansion site, while a jazzy version of the Confederate song Dixie plays in the background. It’s part of another of Sims’ projects, AfroDixie Remixes, in which the song Dixie is performed in different musical styles that turn it on its head.
His large, Black Liberation recolored Confederate flag flies above the grounds. A historical marker he created reads:
“This former plantation, as a historic state park, as a memorial to the enslaved African people who were on this land and beyond, as an apology to them and their descendants, is dedicated to the legacy of the seismic catastrophe of American slavery. This space marks a method of commerce, ownership and inhumanity that will forever haunt the spirit of a ‘free’ America. This space has been reclaimed to mark a place of possible transformative healing, where the enslaved becomes free, the shamed becomes washed and faith is restored in the universal sovereignty of human rights.”
Sims places a black obelisk in front of the mansion, inscribed in gold with the names of the known families who were enslaved there.
Along with the video animation, the physical marker that Sims made and his AfroConfederate Flag: 12 Foot are on display in “Marking Monuments.”
Wallman and Sims conceived a four-part symposium called “Monuments, Markers and Memory,” based on Sims’ op-eds and artworks. The symposium took place over four sessions from late January through early February and invited artists, academics, activists, politicians, organizations, institutions and local communities to hear panel discussions. The themes were Reimagining Monuments, Response, Recovery and Redress.
One panel was held at the Gamble Plantation, though Wallman said there has been no official response to Sims’ call to action.
The last session was Sims’ searing Keynote Address, in which he demands that plantations must become “living monuments for freedom, liberty and justice and act as a physical apology to the victims and descendants of American slavery.” He suggests that “American plantations be confiscated, foreclosed upon and put into a national trust under the care of the National Park Service and overseen by the African American community.”
Sims said the symposium went well and that people were interested.
“The writing was an important element,” he said. “I think it’s the power of the artists being able to motivate and inspire the symposium. It helped navigate people thinking about this stuff and talking about it.”
He said the next step is to create an organization focused on making changes at the Gamble Plantation. He hopes that will be a model for other communities.
Letter writing is a major component in Sims’ film 2020: (Di) Visions of America, which he created as artist in residence at the Ringling Museum last fall. It was screened in January and February.
It begins with a letter read aloud by Dr. Lisa Merritt to a patient who has suffered from COVID-19 and addresses that Black people are more at risk for severe cases and death.
Sims reads a letter to the police calling out brutality and the deaths of Black men. This letter was published as an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel in June.
Chandra Carty, the descendant of a person who was enslaved at the Gamble Plantation, reads a letter to her ancestor, asking what his life was like there.
Sims also created a fine art video game, called Korona Killa, which is featured in the film. It was inspired by his self-portrait, in which he imagines himself having a date with fear. In the game, reminiscent of Space Invaders, players battle the coronavirus and avoid bats. It can be played at johnsimsprojects.com.
He said the way forward is for people to keep social and political pressure on, as well as pressure for a change in educational curriculum. Sims said the work he’s doing will be part of the history of how to respond to issues of social justice.
He also invites people to write, whether it’s op-eds or to each other, as long as original ideas are being expressed.
“Developing a relationship to your own ideas is a step forward,” he said. “Think about ideas and express them in ways people can receive them and have a real dialogue.”
“Marking Monuments” is on display through March 6 at the USF Contemporary Art Museum, which is closed to the public. The exhibition can be viewed online at ira.usf.edu. For more information about John Sims, visit johnsimsprojects.com.