Guillaume Vandame on the history of the Pride flag

Alex Klineberg August 5, 2021

We caught up with visual artist Guillaume Vandame to discover the history of the Pride flag. His works is being shown at the 10th edition of Sculpture in the City. We also discuss whether Valentino Vecchietti’s new Pride flag is a triumph of inclusiveness or a designer’s nightmare.

1. Tell us about your latest project symbols (2019-2021).

Most people are probably familiar with the original rainbow Pride Flag designed by Gilbert Baker, Lynn Segerblom, and James McNamara from 1978 and some of the more recent versions. However, you might be surprised to know that there are many, many more flags.

symbols is a public artwork I’ve developed between 2019 and 2021 consisting of 30 unique flags ranging from gender, sexuality, and desire, which I am showing for the first time at Leadenhall Market as part of the 10th edition of Sculpture in the City, London.

It’s unusual as an artwork because I think it’s the first time all thirty flags have been shown publicly together, possibly anywhere in the world, and on long-term display. One of the common criticisms about Pride Month is that it only lasts a month and I wanted to create an artwork where we could celebrate Pride, individually and as a community, everyday.

2. How did you get involved with the 10th edition of Sculpture in the City?

I got to know the programme at Sculpture in the City in 2019 while I was developing a participatory artwork called Notice Me (LGBTQIA+ Walk), which was about creating visibility and solidarity for the LGBTQIA+ community in the City of London for Nocturnal Creatures. While I was developing the walk, I started to think about how to create a meeting point so participants would know where to meet and that’s how I had the idea of presenting a selection of flags together.

There’s something quite bold and unapologetic about the flags but they are also really modest and gentle, in a certain way. I submitted a proposal to showcase 25 flags and the work was shortlisted in January 2020. Eventually, I had thirty flags in total.

3. How did the artwork change over the last two years?

In the midst of the pandemic everything was put on hold but I worked closely with Stella from Sculpture in the City, who is truly extraordinary and visionary, to try and see this work of art have the light of day. It was also great to have the total support and hard work of Corail Bourrelier from Mtec and Price & Myers to develop this artwork and treat it like any other project.

Some of these conversations were really difficult given the nature of the artwork and these questions of public space and art were not being addressed within a queer or gay context. I don’t think there was a precedent for what I am doing. The artwork gained new meaning during Black Lives Matter and really made me question how to represent gay people or the absence of gay people in public space. I was interested in using alternative materials and subjects to create a new language or set of tools for public art; something that looks like nothing we’ve seen before.

At times I had to balance between being an advocate for the entire LGBTQIA+ community and my own interests or core values as an artist while not giving up hope. To be able to show all thirty flags at Leadenhall Market is truly a triumph and shows that there is change at an institutional level.

4. Your work will be on display at Leadenhall Market, London through Spring 2022. What do you have in store for us?

I am hoping that symbols can be activated through some form of public programming in the year ahead. I love creating artworks and exhibitions which can be activated in some way such as a pizza party or birthday party and evening of poetry for (legendary gay poet) Thom Gunn. Nothing is set in stone but I am really excited by the range of opportunities to develop an original programme at Leadenhall Market from conversations and live talks to performance, music, and poetry. Watch this space…

5. What does the ever evolving Pride Flag mean to you?

I think the Pride Flag is still such a strong symbol for the gay community. Like a lot of people, I think before I came to terms with my sexuality, I felt like there was something quite alien about the flag and the stigma around being gay.

Over the years, I’ve learned to embrace the flag as part of our community and who I am. Some people in the gay community might think the flag is meaningless or overproduced but it’s possibly the most direct way to signal that a space is LGBTQ+ friendly, so it still serves a purpose today. From the opposite side, it might shock even some gay people to know just how frequently Pride Flags are burned and vandalised internationally or even just President Donald Trump banning the Pride Flag. So we can’t take its presence or ‘mainstream status’ for granted.

6. How have the lockdowns affected your work?

This is a great question! While I have a studio, I don’t come from a studio based practice so I was able to manage okay working from home in Brockley but I still struggled a bit with being alone and isolated.

A lot of my ideas often come about through the intersection of art and life, a bit like Robert Rauschenberg, Yayoi Kusama or Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

In the first lockdown, I began to develop more of my ideas around queer representation in the arts and began a series of abstract mixed media works made primarily from Frank’s Red Hot Sauce and Durex Lubricant. It’s a long story but basically because everyone had bought all the pasta in the supermarkets, I thought optimistically I was going to live off of eggs and hot sauce for the next indefinite amount of months. At the same time, I had all this lubricant because things with a guy I was seeing abruptly came to an end. One day I saw the two on my desk and instantly knew I had to use them together.

I think the lockdowns have affected my work in a few ways. I think they have made me closer to my peers and artists I admire, especially from the LGBTQ+ community. I’ve become more experimental and conceptual by being isolated and alone…but I’ve also had to think more critically about how my practice can be used as a platform for connection, exchange, and advocacy. It’s not just about me but the wider community and how I can give back. I am so conscious that LGBTQIA+ people were basically silenced and invisible during the pandemic and so there is a great demand to change this and make up for lost time.

7. The Pride Flag “reboot” has been called “a triumph for inclusiveness and a design disaster.” Is that a fair assessment?

A friend on Instagram joked at the time that the new flag by Valentino Vecchietti is a bit like a Julie Mehretu painting with all the community groups co-existing at once in some crazy cosmopolitan maelstrom of brightly coloured swirls, lines, and shapes. Or at least that’s where things are heading.

I personally don’t have a problem with it as there are already hundreds even thousands of speculative designs being made everyday; this one just happened to go mainstream and viral. People can be quite creative with making up new flags and the results are pretty varied and usually quite beautiful. I don’t doubt that the original flag by Gilbert Baker will always be the most iconic version or even Morgan Carpenter’s original Intersex Pride Flag; it’s just about ensuring it’s shown at all!

I can’t personally prioritise one group over another which is why I made the flags at Leadenhall Market as non-hierarchical as possible. I think they are all equally important. And for those of you who are unsure, you can see all the flags together at symbols and make an opinion for yourself!