A controversial artwork brought to Greene County in 2017 and subsequently stolen is back in the hands of its creator.
British artist Luke Turner, who collaborated on the “He Will Not Divide Us” project with actor Shia LaBoeuf and artist Nastja Säde Rönkkö, confirmed this week that the artwork was recovered by the FBI and returned to him.
Even though the theft happened in 2017, Turner wrote in a email that he never gave up hope that the “He Will Not Divide Us” flag-artwork would be recovered.
“I can confirm that my HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US artwork has been recovered by the FBI and is back in my possession,” Turner said.
Turner characterized the perpetrators as “neo-Nazis.” The FBI did not respond this week to requests for information about the investigation or charges filed against those responsible.
“After four years and one month of exhaustive efforts, (the) artwork…stolen in a much-publicized midnight raid by neo-Nazis in the United States, has been recovered. This represents the final chapter of one of the most high-profile contemporary art thefts in recent years, and likely the only such crime perpetrated by organized Nazis against a Jewish artist since the 1940s,” Turner wrote.
The hand-sewn 3-by-4.5-foot flag “was recovered following the concerted efforts of a small but dedicated international network of anti-fascist academics, art world professionals and members of the public who had helped to track the whereabouts of the artwork from the day of the theft,” Turner wrote.
“He Will Not Divide Us” is a participatory performance artwork that began as a message projected on a wall at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. The piece was launched in January 2017 as part of “a live-streamed durational artwork” timed to coincide with Donald Trump’s inauguration as president.
GREENE COUNTY CONNECTION
LaBeouf arrived in Greene County in March 2017 with the intention of locating the “He Will Not Divide Us” flag on the property of Rachel Bewley. His local arrival spurred intense social media speculation.
Photos of LaBoeuf on March 6, 2017, at places like Aunt Bea’s Restaurant, began circulating. LaBoeuf was gone by March 10, 2017. But also gone was the flag Bewley consented to have placed on her property.
“He Will Not Divide Us,” was one of a series of collaborative art projects between Turner, LaBeouf and Rönkkö, who had worked together previously.
The flag was intended as a performing art piece the trio had displayed in New York and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
It was removed from Bewley’s property by a group opposed to the “He Will Not Divide Us” message.
Bewley said in interviews in March 2017 that after the flag was placed on her property and shown on a live-stream web feed, she and her family had to contend with trespassers and even a small fire in a field that started after fireworks were shot into her yard.
Bewley offered a comment Friday.
“No one involved in the attacks here has faced consequences for their actions. There has been no acknowledgement of crimes committed (such as) stalking, harassment, trespassing, theft and arson on the part of local law enforcement,” Bewley said.
“It is discouraging to see the events that have transpired since 2017 framed as a hopeful story about the FBI recovery of stolen property without an in-depth discussion about the participation of local officials,” Bewley said.
After LaBeouf got into an altercation in February 2017 in New York with someone protesting the art piece, it was moved to Albuquerque, according to the Associated Press.
At the time, LaBeouf told a reporter: “We are anti- the normalization of division. That’s it. The rest of the info is right there, chief. I got nothing else to say to you.”
The artists’ website, thecampaignbook.com, described the project as “Open to all, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” The participatory performance was live-streamed at www.hewillnotdivide.us continuously for four years.
“In this way, the mantra ‘HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US’ acts as a show of resistance or insistence, opposition or optimism, guided by the spirit of each individual participant and the community,” Turner wrote.
After gunshots were heard near the flag in New Mexico, it was taken down and moved to Greene County.
Bewley said in the 2017 interview she received a call from the artists, requesting to move the flag to her Tennessee property and continue displaying it on a live-stream link.
In New York, participants were invited to speak the words “he will not divide us” into a camera. In Greene County, the artwork was to consist of a livestream of a white flag, with the phrase written on it in capital letters. Nothing would be visible in the camera shot other than the flag flying.
Bewley had previously worked with LaBeouf, Turner and Rönkkö, having met them at an art show in Colorado in 2016, and continued to do so for several years.
Turner wrote that the art piece “was created as an explicit symbol of resistance to the divisiveness of the last U.S. presidency and the broader reactionary shifts across the globe of which this was symptomatic.”
Following media coverage that brought the “He Will Not Divide Us” project to the public’s attention, “It also became the target of violent attacks from the far-right, the extreme nature of which is hard to overstate, and which led to the work having to be relocated multiple times,” Turner wrote.
The flag remained missing, but the artwork message was displayed in other formats at other locations. HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US “continued to stream from a number of different art institutions across Europe,” Turner wrote.
It was subject to “numerous instances of white supremacist vandalism, more than two dozen bomb threats directed at the museum hosting it in New York, two arson attacks, the second of which was carried out by a drone at the art institution in France to which the work had been relocated,” Turner wrote.
The March 2017 theft of the artwork from the site in Tennessee was witnessed first-hand by Turner and others as it occurred, “both online and offline.”
He wrote that two of the perpetrators identified were members of a neo-Nazi group who “had gone out of their way to brag about the theft over the subsequent weeks” and posted multiple photographs of the stolen artwork on “far-right” social media platforms.
“Efforts to retrieve the artwork via the authorities initially came to nothing, and an eventual visit by local police to (the suspects’) home almost a year later in early 2018 drew a blank,” Turner wrote. By that stage, it seemed probable that they had passed the looted artwork on to an associate, and the chances of ever retrieving it appeared slim to none.”
Toward the end of 2019, Turner received a Facebook message from an art curator friend. She had seen what appeared to be the flag after an online search led her to a photograph of a man wearing a “White Power” T-shirt, standing in front of the flag hanging on a wall next to a rifle.
“That looks like the actual stolen flag…That’s my baby,” Turner replied.
The image was from a 2019 photo essay by a Reuters photographer in The Independent, a British online newspaper.
Turner wrote that the man in the photograph lived in Arkansas and was part of a now-defunct neo-Nazi group based there. The man pleaded guilty in 2019 to an unrelated Arkansas case to terroristic threatening and 3rd-degree battery after he and two others beat and injured a gay man.
If the man “had kept hold of the stolen artwork since the publication of these images, then this may just have been the breakthrough needed to secure its return. I wasted no time in passing this new information on to the FBI Art Crime Team,” Turner wrote.
Turner wrote that much of the (news) coverage at the time of the theft chose not just to ignore the nature of the attacks, but to spin the story in the very opposite direction. What was in reality part of a protracted gang-stalking campaign by a dangerously committed and obsessive neo-Nazi hate group intent on inflicting harm—perhaps the most frightening imaginable targeting to experience as a Jewish person—was framed by many as nothing more than ‘trolling,’” Turner wrote.
He wrote that the tone of media coverage began to change after the August 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, “Unite the Right” rally, during which a protestor was murdered.
Turner wrote that he was victimized afterward by “overt antisemitic baiting” by factions of the “reactionary art world.”
Turner was contacted in late 2020 by an FBI agent, who told him the flag had been recovered.
“Although the exact details of the operation to physically retrieve the artwork couldn’t be disclosed, and while this does not represent justice for the actions of those responsible, this was nonetheless a moment of immense catharsis, in the knowledge that what was taken from me would be returned,” Turner wrote.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the return of the flag to Turner.
“It was further requested that I wait until after the November election for the artwork to be handed back, such was the political sensitivity and symbolism the piece carried, and the FBI department’s nervousness at potentially wading into a diplomatic incident,” he wrote.
The flag was returned to Turner earlier this year.
“Being able to handle the flag up close once again, it’s clear that it has lived a life in those four long years. It now bears various stains and splatters, with its cord crudely slashed from the theft. But the flag has stayed intact, gleaming in its own modest way,” he wrote.
“That, for me, is the magical strength of art; the capacity for us to imbue it with shared, connective values, and its resilience and immutability in the face of those who would wish to see those values destroyed, but who will never succeed,” Turner wrote.
He wrote in an email this week that the flag’s return “certainly felt like a moment of catharsis, but also quite surreal and unnerving to see in those photographs exactly where my creation has been, in the hands of neo-Nazis and proximity to the darkest of ideologies.”
While the durational artwork ended on Jan. 20, with the live-stream concluding in France, Turner wrote that the “broader dangers posed by the groups involved in targeting me and my artwork still very much persist, with those associated with the neo-Nazi groups and figures I refer to in the art world still targeting me, and continuing to threaten many others.”
“Nonetheless, to have actually recovered the artwork after all this time is quite symbolic,” he wrote.
Photographs of the artwork can be downloaded at: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1d9ANh0e3L5QfIF3Zx0Xoeb1hlFyxhDyh
For more information about the artist, visit luketurner.com