With the election happening today, Lesny (aka “Flex”) JN Felix’s latest art exhibit couldn’t have been timelier. His series of American-flag paintings, “Subject Matter; This Real Democracy….”, opened on October 23 at Hotel on Rivington, located at 107 Rivington Street, on the Lower East Side of New York City.
Not since Jasper Johns has an artist utilized the American flag in such an effective manner. Flex’s thirteen paintings stir up the rhetoric surrounding patriotism, democracy, what it means to be American, and the Americana tradition of art. As a refugee from Haiti who is now residing in the cultural melting-pot of New York City, Flex holds a particularly interesting vantage point on the interplay between American culture, religion, and politics.
I asked Flex to explain the message behind his latest painting exhibit and how it relates to his view of the United States.
Burnside Writers Collective (BWC): How has your Haitian background influenced your thoughts on the US?
Flex: I am not sure because I am still learning where I stand. But I do believe that that fact that Haiti is the mother of Democracy that it deserves a lot better support than what's been provided throughout our existence.
[A journalist] told me once that Haiti is a lost cause. I agreed with his point but I do have some hope and I hope that I am part of [bringing about positive changes in Haiti]. I have a lot of ground to cover before I get there but I would like to be a hope.
BWC: Does the United States now feel like home?
Flex: Well, I guest maybe [the US] feels like home.... What is really home? Sometimes I feel it's not necessarily about the global position but rather the whole earth. Yes, I feel like [I’m at] home but there is a sense of just being home in a society aspect. I am a victim to society and it's greed and obsession of possessions and of inner self. …So whatever I must do here, I must do it with my own intentions of what I view is being a decent and respectable being. I do believe that we are living with the boundaries of so-called heaven and hell, but it's up to you to [discover].
BWC: You are of a Mormon background but don't practice it anymore. Do you think religion has a place in politics?
Flex: Well, no and yes. If you look at the time after September 11, the church [became superior to politics]. …That should not be the way to have done it.
BWC: Does religion play a role in your art at all?
Flex: Yes, I worship creativity.
BWC: Do you consider your art to be of a political nature? Explain.
Flex: I have Obama t-shirts. Does that count? Kidding, I have the collages that I made a few years ago that are political. It comes to you when to do something political. The flags came, stall[ed], then continued and are almost finished. I have three left to be painted.
BWC: When did you begin painting American flags and why did you start?
Flex: I don't remember exactly off the top of my head. It was sometime last year before the national emergence of Obama-mania. I remember having a conversation with Deitch [Gallery} project director Nicola Vassell on the need for a real African-American political leader. She replied, yes, there is [one], and his name is Barack Obama. A few weeks later there he was emerging into the spotlight. I was happy about it, and I felt that here is a true legitimate black leader to inspire our communities in a [more] positive way than the negative public images of rap stars and crooked Jesse [Jackson] and Al [Sharpton]. You have no idea how great this is. I would say it is like Moses freeing the slaves from Egypt. Obama is freeing our young ones from these negative role models and bad politicians that were our voice. He is now our voice, which I can say is a huge and huger stride to a better tomorrow for all of us regardless of color.
BWC: Your exhibit at Hotel on Rivington is subtitled "This Real Democracy…." What is the significance of this statement?
Flex: My country is more of a dictatorship than it is the Mother of Democracy. You get dealt with if you even make a joke about the Duvalier regime. Today I pay no attention because there is nothing I can do, but I hope that will be in the past very soon because I will always remember where I came from and growing up playing hide and seek and playing on the rice field.
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A portion of the $30 suggested donation went toward supporting the Bowery Mission food program, a Christian ministry that provides food and recovery services for those in need. In a non-related letter I received from the Mission, the ministry noted that because of our country’s economic crisis, some of the people that will come through their doors this Thanksgiving will be young people who have just recently lost their jobs and found themselves homeless for the first time.