Since his days working as coordinator of mathematics at Ringling College of Art and Design, conceptual artist and activist John Sims has developed strong roots in the community, and wants to continue to share his voice with Sarasota, the state of Florida and the nation at large.
This fall, Sims will showcase his work as an artist in residence with the Art of Performance Program at The Ringling. He plans to host evenings combining his visual art, written work, sound and performance at the Historic Asolo Theater, where audiences will become immersed in his message about struggles Black Americans face, police brutality, racial injustice and Confederate iconography in the South. The performances will be prefaced by artist talks in which Sims will discuss his work, which will touch on current issues such as how Covid-19 is affecting the Black community, the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality.
"I've been working on [my collection] for more than 20 years, since I came down to teach at Ringling," says Sims. "I am interested in oppositional dynamics and using my math-art mind to create synergetic energy, or even repulsive energy, in an audience."
Coming from a working-class background in Detroit, Sims' experiences as a Black man and artist serve as a mirror for what audiences are experiencing in the world today. "I want my work to activate myself and others," Sims says. "Whether that's through engaging, lecturing or simply talking, I want to get folks inspired to move the culture somehow."
Sims' work tackling Confederate iconography, namely the Confederate flag, began at a show in SoHo in New York City in 1999, during which he created stickers he calls "AfroConfederate bumper stickers." He reconstructed the Confederate flag with the colors of Black nationalism—black, red and green—and later replicated a 4-foot-by-4-foot version of this flag for a show called Summer in the City in 2000. Audiences were shocked and confused by Sims' intentions.
"It was like an elephant in the room and no one paid attention to it," he says.
From there, Sims brought his AfroConfederate flag to protests, including one at a KKK meeting in St. Petersburg. Later, when he realized that audiences needed further context to understand his message, he developed a piece called The Proper Way to Hang the Confederate Flag, which showcased a Confederate flag hanging from 13-foot gallows in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The outspoken message shocked the press, leading to negative media attention and forcing Sims to boycott his own show.
"I wanted to be at the right place at the right time for a national discussion about white supremacy and the Confederacy," says Sims. "You can get ready to start a fire—but if it's raining, that fire will never start."
In 2015, Sims launched Burn and Bury, a nationwide campaign consisting of ritualistic burning ceremonies of Confederate flags. In collaboration with artists around the country, the campaign grew to tearing down Confederate monuments and statues. During this time, Sims continued to refine his sound art, an integral part of his conceptual practice, and developed a CD called Afro Dixie Remixes, a 13-year project which includes a remix of the song "Dixie" featuring Black and white musicians from Sarasota.
The recent killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis inspired Sims to press even further into activism, writing op-ed pieces for local and national publications. He wrote a piece called "Dear Police," which was published in the Orlando Sentinel and sent to Sarasota Chief of Police Bernadette DiPino, whom Sims challenged to reply.
DiPino's reply will become a sound duet piece between her and Sims' initial letter, featured as one of three parts in his residency at The Ringling. The first part will address the coronavirus. For it, Sims created a powerful self-portrait where he is surrounded by black, red and green-colored viruses. He also created a virus-themed video game called Korona Killa, responding to the collective fear of the virus, which is featured on his website.
"We are facing a dual pandemic, with the coronavirus and with police brutality," says Sims. "I decided to refine my portrait to include copied viruses with blue line flags around it, representing the police and capturing this journey we're taking."
The last part of Sims' residency will include his flag work and recent fight to tear down Confederate monuments in Florida, like Sarasota's former statue honoring 1800s Confederate politician Judah P. Benjamin. He also created a petition to remove Benjamin's memorial at the Gamble Plantation Historic State Park in Ellenton.
"All the things I'm talking about are current, but it's stuff I've been working on for years," says Sims. "From the time I started making AfroConfederate bumper stickers to now, everything is coming full circle and people finally seem ready to receive the message."
Sims hopes his residency and performances will stimulate audiences' imagination of what change could look like.
"This work is addressing things people are seeing on the news, and talking about with friends and family," says Sims. "That, with educational context about what we're facing, creates possibility for real transformation."
John Sims will be an artist in residence at The Ringling Sept. 11-20. To learn more about the Art of Performance program, click here.