Kovert Konflagration Kovenant

An exhibition by David Stephens about cross burning and the 2002 Supreme Court ruling in Virginia Vs. Black


Fields of Knowledge
  • Performance
  • Politics / Economics
  • Public culture

Organizing Institutions



Aaron Levy, Jean-Michel Rabaté, Osvaldo Romberg

Opens to public



4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104


25% Formal - 75% Informal

  • David stephens

Slought presents "Kovert Konflagration Kovenant," an exhibition featuring new work by blind sculptor David Stephens, on view from November 13, 2004 - January 31, 2005. Stevens' exhibition revisits the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming a First Amendment right to cross burnings on private property. It features 12 sculpted crosses that will be burned on December 3, 2004 (the location of the burning has not been disclosed at this time) and then returned to the exhibition. Video documentation of the intimate cross burning will then be displayed in our storefront window. The exhibition is also comprised of 12 wall panels in Braille and representational crowns that stage a conversation between Queen Candice (to whom the arrival of Christianity in Ethiopia has been attributed) and Ebed-melech (in the Bible, King Zedekiah's Ethiopian eunuch, through whom Jeremiah was freed), with a retort by Pennsylvania Klan members Berry and Byron Black.

"Kovert Konflagration Kovenant" seeks to demystify the idea of burning a cross and the fear often associated with it, and to suggest that as a form of protected free speech its symbolic meaning is not exclusive to the Ku Klux Klan, and can be appropriated in turn by others. In addition, the exhibition presents blindness not as a physiological handicap but rather as a tool affording opportunities for a conceptual practice that redresses social bias. This later point is influenced by Marcel Duchamp, who throughout his life insisted that he disliked "retinal art," preferring the "non-retinal beauty of grey matter" (Schwarz, 1969a) that "put art at the service of the mind." Significant art was not the aesthetic arrangement of visual or decorative images, but the formulation of meaning through conceptual associations.

In 1998, Pennsylvania Klan member Barry Elton Black was arrested after leading a Klan rally that included burning a 25-foot tall cross. The cross was on private property but in full view of passing motorists and nearby residents, including many African-Americans. In 2001, Virginia's highest court struck down the state's 50-year-old law forbidding cross burning. The law amounted to "viewpoint discrimination" and violated the First Amendment, the court said. The case was accepted for review by the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2002 following a plea by the commonwealth of Virginia for clarity on the racially charged subject. "The question of how states may ban cross-burning - when the intent is to intimidate - is an important question of federal law that this court should address," Virginia's state solicitor William Hurd told Court justices in his petition in Virginia v. Black.

After the court's decision to revisit the case, Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore said, "It is important that Virginia have the ability to protect her citizens from this type of intimidation. Burning a cross to intimidate someone is nothing short of domestic terrorism." Nine states also filed a brief with the court urging it to accept the case to give them guidance on how to deal with hate crimes, which, they said, are on the rise. "Expressions of hate and bigotry are protected by the Constitution, but actions taken to harm, threaten, intimidate or terrorize others are not equally protected merely because they are rooted in such hate and bigotry," the states agreed. Arizona, California, Georgia, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Oklahoma, Utah and Washington joined in the brief.

Download the Court Opinion

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In David Stephen's varied and distinguished arts career in Philadelphia he has worked as a teacher, dealer, and administrator (with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts). He has served on the board of the Fabric Workshop, Nexus, the Woodturning Center, the Brandywine Workshop and other local arts institutions, as well as advised and nurtured many community art programs including those at Taller Puertorriqueno, the Painted Bride, and the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. An artist and sculptor, Stephens has recently had a solo show at the Philadelphia Airport of work created during a residency at the Fabric Workshop.

In 1999 his graphic work was shown at The Moore College of Art, and in 2003 he exhibited his work, entitled "144 Crosses for the 144,000," at The Noyes Museum, the fourth in a series of installations generated by his interest in the work of visionary artist James Hampton. Now blind due to the early-onset of glaucoma, Stephens often incorporates Braille into his work, creating objects of interpretation, discursivity, and touch. The cross, which Stephens considers to be "emblematic of the process of transformation," frequently appears in his work as well; he finds it fascinating that the cross was used as a Roman form of torture but was later adopted by Christianity as a symbol of redemption.

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At the present time, all requests for a location for the burning from the University of Pennsylvania, the sole property holder of open space in the vicinity of Slought able to accomodate 50 or more persons, have been denied, in accordance with City of Philadelphia fire regulations. These regulations require that permits from the Philadelphia Department of Licensing and Inspections be obtained from the private property holder for any instructional or educational assemblies or activities involving open flames, excepting cooking devices. Application for permit approval can only be presented by and permits issued to the property owner of the land upon which the fire is to be kindled.

The University of Pennsylvania has not offered to apply for a permit on behalf of Slought, a tenant, at this time. Applications for permits from the City of Philadelphia for purposes of a special event or cross burning on public property were not obtained within the requisite 75 day advance-notice period, as University officials had not raised objections prior to the week of November 15, 2004. Slought requested access from the University of Pennsylvania to locations including the plaza facing Slought on the South side of Walnut and 40th Street, the 10th-floor roof level of the parking garage immediately adjacent to Slought on the North side of the street, and the open field adjacent to the Walnut and 40th Street Branch of the Free Library.

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