A Flag For The Least of Them is part of Theaster Gates Civil Rights Tapestries series, which are made from colorful strips of decommissioned fire hose, that are tonally arranged and stitched together. Reflecting Gates's interest in the poetics of re-purposed and salvaged materials, the series was originally influenced by a darker chapter in American history and the events of the 1963 riots in Birmingham, Alabama when water cannons were used against civil rights demonstrators. A number of works from this series were shown in Gates's 2012 exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, entitled My Labor Is My Protest.
The deep burgundy strips of fire hose in A Flag For The Least of Them are affixed to a wooden board, and formed into a linear, geometric pattern. The colors vary subtly in shade, presenting a wealth of histories and uses, but the finished, formal composition of Gates’ painting presents itself as a new flag for those who are not represented by the official American flag. Rendered devoid of the medium’s original function and instead presented for visual consideration, A Flag For The Least of Them references both the language of the readymade, and the aesthetic of 1960s abstract American painting.
In Lisa Yun Lee's essay, Everything and the Burden is Beautiful, written for Gates's 2015 Phaidon publication, Lee aptly describes the duality of the Civil Rights series: "A signature of Gates's works is his ability to embrace the hybridity of cultural signifiers, thereby ensuring that no single set of meanings is exhausted. He moves between the powerful historical referent that is often part of the weightiness of black history, and a formal reference that is more often than not part of a mostly white art history. Through this interchange, the two become inextricable braided, complicit with one another." (pg. 56)