Back when he created the Acadiana Black Pride Flag, artist Cory Stewart never imagined it might become a bigger way to convey pride in Acadiana and his black culture. After being hoisted above Lafayette’s massive Rally Against Police Brutality at the end of May, Stewart’s flag has caught on as a local symbol of solidarity with the nation’s swelling protests and calls for change in the wake of George Floyd’s suffocation by a Minneapolis police officer. Stewart launched AcadianaBlack to sell copies of his original flag and prints of it on decals, T-shirts and stickers. Any money he raises will be donated to the local chapter of the NAACP, the national Black Lives Matter fund and emergency bail funds set up to get arrested protestors out of jail.
Film and conceptual art are Stewart’s primary media, but he hasn’t spent much time using his work to make political statements. Before the flag and AcadianaBlack, he completed a script for a short film called The Negro and the Cheese Knife, a comedy that explores the meaning of black identity across dimensions of class with themes Stewart says are even more familiar and pertinent in light of the nation’s reaction to a chain of police killings of black people.
This weekend, Stewart is hosting a Juneteenth celebration in Downtown Lafayette. He’s also a member of Willingly Rejected, a local arts collective made up of mostly black visual artists, rappers, poets and others.
We spoke by phone June 12. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Last time we talked, I literally caught up with you while you and the flag were taking part in Lafayette’s first George Floyd rally. Since then, you’ve been selling it. How’s that going?
Fantastic. It’s been awesome. Within the first day I had the store, I sold out of patches of the Acadiana Black Pride Flag. I’ve had a lot of messages and comments from people saying they’re proud of me, which is very endearing, but there are a lot of people doing bigger things than I am who deserve a lot more credit than I do. I’m an artist who’s just waving around a flag at these things. Art has a big effect on people, and that’s the amazing part about it: It can take so many shapes, forms, representations; people can take it how they want. To me it’s just another piece I made that happened to have taken on greater significance. To other people, it’s a symbol of finally being included into the Acadiana community or a future here that is more inclusive.
Would you generally describe yourself as a conceptual artist?
Most of my art means something. I don’t typically make grand statements on national topics, more personal thoughts that I put into visual form. That way it’s conceptual. With the flag it was a combination of things that I love — Acadiana, and my [black culture and upbringing] … that’s how I express that. In the current cultural climate, it’s taken a completely different form. It’s not my narrative that’s being told anymore, which is completely fine. As these patches and flags go out to other people, it’s especially not my narrative to tell. And who knows where they might show up. A symbol can take a completely different form thereafter.
It struck me immediately as provocative when I saw it at the rally in May. And it’s striking to me now that you didn’t create it with a sense that’s how it would be perceived. Did you anticipate that it would be as profound as it seems to be for people now?
No. Not at all. It’s great. That’s some of the best pieces. The simplest things can have such a major effect. At one point, the [national] art community was losing their minds over the Comedian piece. It’s a banana duct-taped to a wall, but people lost their minds, and it takes on a whole other different meaning.
Do you see yourself doing more political comments?
I haven’t really sat down with myself and am not ready to answer that question. Predominantly because for the longest time I really ran away from making specifically black art. Not that I do not like being black or I do not like being a black artist. That’s far from the truth. I just always thought that it was a ceiling for black artists — that they can only talk about black issues affecting black people. I knew there would be better people to talk about those issues and make better statements. At the end of the day, I’ve lived in middle class America my entire life. I’m making a short film that delves into that, that core issue of the black middle class, the educated middle class, versus the black people who have still been struggling the entire time here. That was going to be my commentary piece before the flag became the thing. I dive much more into those subjects in my film work.
Do you change your subjects based on medium?
I feel like the artist can be so removed from painting unless it’s a self-portrait. I’ve made pieces that would still be considered self-portraits without [images of myself] there, because I believe the self is more than the exterior of what you see. That also comes from being black and always having that be the defining feature to both the white and the black community — of how a person should speak, act, their interests, everything. My exterior does not tell the whole story. I consider myself way too much of a complex person to be limited to a proper self-portrait. That’s easier to portray in film because there are words, real people, you get more of an idea of who the filmmaker is.
Tell me about the film.
The name of the short film is The Negro and the Cheese Knife. The gist is a black boyfriend receives an anniversary gift from his white girlfriend, and the gift is a cheese knife because they’ve been going on a lot of wine and cheese dates. (Of everyone I’ve asked whether they’ve heard of a black man with a cheese knife, the answer is always “no.”) When he goes home to get his anniversary gifts for her, a black guy is robbing his house and surprises him. He stabs the black guy with the cheese knife. They call the police, the policeman handcuffs them both because he thinks “white guy,” “cheese knife,” and he sees two black people. It’s dealing with the same topics of police mistreatment [that the country is dealing with today.] When you are black you see all the complexities of being black and different personalities and definitely class and definitely education and everything. But when you’re police or you’re racist you just see black. That’s where the short, conceptually, is going.
Did it come from a personal anecdote?
Definitely personal. Not so much with the police situation — that’s something I created. I am dating someone who is white; I got a cheese knife and that just spawned a whole bunch of things that pop up from it. I’ve been black all my life; I’ve never seen a cheese knife. That’s where it spawned the script, a combination of cultures.
What was your reaction when you got it?
*Laughs* I’m obligated to say gratitude. She got it for me because we were going on a lot of wine and cheese dates. She got me to like cheese. A lot of black people don’t eat cheese outside of normal food — mac and cheese, sandwiches, burgers. Artisan cheese, it’s a very middle class [white] thing. A lot of cultures don’t do cheese. Artisan cheese is not something I really knew until I started dating her because she’s white. I love cheese now. When I was gifted a cheese knife of my own, that was when all these thoughts hit me at this moment. Am I gaining something? Am I losing something? How many black people have this? Is this a step forward? Is it a step back? I started overthinking and complicating it. I’m still super grateful for it. It’s a great knife. I love the knife and my girlfriend — it was a very thoughtful gift. Being a black person [and an artist], there are complexities. The only way I could work through them is through humor and filmmaking.
Where do you go from here? Is the response to your flag changing the way you think about what kind of work you’d like to do here in Lafayette?
I’ve always had dreams of grandeur. Before all of this, my main focus was film. Developing the cheese-knife script, it’s still a big dream of mine to see that come to fruition and to make more films and media; that is my thing. But right now, AcadianaBlack feels needed. I can’t ignore this. I’m doing my part to the best of my abilities to what I know, creating this art or having this flag distributed so people can be proud and take in the moment with physical means and with something we’ll be able to look back at for the rest of our lives.