In Ferguson, Missouri, protesters took to the streets in 2014 after a white police officer fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown. Among the profusion of signs denouncing police brutality and pleading for justice, the Stars and Stripes waved red, black and green. The flags were replicas of a famous work of art african american flag, created by conceptual artist David Hammons, known for his insightful paintings, sculptures and prints as well as for challenging the art world and all its conventions. “Actually, I can’t stand art, I’ve never liked art,” he famously told an art historian in 1986.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture recently acquired Hammons’ african american flag, one of five in a row, given as a partial gift by Jan Christiaan Braun, who collaborated with Hammons on the groundbreaking Black USA exhibition that opened in 1990 at Amsterdam’s Museum Overholland. When asked why he had decided to donate African American flag to the museum, Braun’s response was a simple explanation: “Because that’s where it belongs!”
“The African American flag is a fundamental gesture by David Hammons,” says New York-based artist and curator Felandus Thames. “It’s his most iconic piece. It positions African Americans as the backbone of the country through the work it took to build this country.”
By the time Hammons and Braun worked together, the artist’s reputation for brilliance and capriciousness was already well established. He preferred found materials – chains, wires, branches, empty wine bottles; and he made art in special places, performances that took place outside of the conventional gallery and museum spaces – he sold snowballs on a sidewalk or made sculptures out of hair swept together from barbershops.
“Hammons challenges conventions of art historical canons and eludes any categorization. It also addresses stereotypes and perceptions of African-American culture,” says Tuliza Fleming, the museum’s curator of American art.
Thames recalls meeting Hammons at the Tilton Gallery in 2010. The artist sat in the gallery and ate olives with an upturned hat. It was a private reception where Hammons told young Thames, who had just graduated from Yale School of Art, to follow him through the night and see how he interacted with the gallery-goers.
They spent another two hours talking. Thames admits Hammons disrupted his studio practice. At another meeting, Hammons Thames showed how he could free himself from his schooling and its rules to create real art. Hammons, says Thames, “is a unique figure in the African-American canon because he is the first black artist to be fully accepted by the white canon.”
For his part, Braun had been trying to identify the best black artists in America for his exhibition and was working at the Schomburg Center in Harlem researching black culture when he went in search of Hammons. The artist regularly avoided such ventures. “The word ‘elusive’ sticks to Hammons like a Homeric epithet.” The New Yorkr’s Calvin Tomkins once observed. Art historian Kellie Jones, one of the few to conduct an extensive interview with the artist, suggested that Braun try the American Academy in Rome. When Braun finally caught up with Hammons, the pair quickly found kinship. “We exchanged thoughts about the art world, including free jazz, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor,” Braun said in a statement. “He drew my special attention to Sun Ra. We talked about blurring the lines between what is expected and what is not expected. We became best friends. And we still are.”
For the exhibition, Braun told the artist that he “needed something special to install outside of the building,” perhaps with the flagpole, to express “a kind of liberation” for black art. An African American flag was Hammons’ answer; and on a napkin he drew an American flag, identifying the red, black, and green colors.
These were the colors of the Black Liberation Flag created in 1920 by Marcus Garvey, leader of the Pan-Africanist movement, and members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The flag should mobilize and unite all people of the African diaspora. Red represents the blood shed, black represents the people it represents, and green represents the rich wealth of Africa. The Black Liberation Flag, also known as the Pan-African Flag, was made in response to a song from the period racist-titled “Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon”. Robert Hill, a historian and Marcus Garvey researcher, said Garvey recognized that the absence of a flag “was a sign of the black race’s political impotence … and the acquisition of a flag would be evidence of the black race’s political maturity.” had become .”
The flag that Hammons would create, Fleming said, also drew attention to the pride and heritage of African Americans in a nation where black people saw little validation of their worth and contribution to history, culture, and society. Hammons said, “Marcus Garvey designed the African American flag, which looked like the Italian flag except it’s red, black, and green. But it’s so abstract, so pure, that the masses were afraid of it. I made my flag because I felt they needed one like the US flag but with black stars instead of white.”
Hammons was born in 1943 in Springfield, Illinois. In 1963 he moved to Los Angeles, enrolled for a year at Los Angeles City College and then took classes at Otis College of Art. Charles White, the famous artist and husband of Elizabeth Catlett, taught at Otis and invited the financially tight Hammons to take part in his evening courses free of charge. In 1968 he completed his artistic training at the Chouinard Art Institute. His early works include the screenprinted images from his Spades series, which include caricature-like casts of his face and rusted garden tools. “I was trying to figure out why black spades are called as opposed to clubs,” he told Jones.
In the early 90’s, when Hammons turned to sculpture, he created In the hood to depict the long struggle of black men against the ongoing problems of police brutality. The green hood hangs upright on a wall, detached from the body of the sweatshirt. “Hammons can turn a simple gesture into a work of art,” says Thames. It may not have taken him long to create the artwork, but it certainly took generations for others to understand this truth.
The banner of Hammons, with its black stars and red and green stripes, resonates with this truth. African American flag is a statement. In Harlem you fly high in front of the Studio Museum; on the street in front of the building, vendors sell replicas. “Artists have celebrated, interpreted, and reimagined the American flag for hundreds of years,” says Fleming, “I think the celebration of liberty embodied in the symbol of the American flag carries the right to critically evaluate it through an artistic lens.”
The museums African American flag is now in his ongoing art exhibition Reckoning: Protest. In spite of. Resilience.” The exhibition includes works such as Amy Sherald’s famous portrait of Breonna Taylor, Bisa Butler’s tribute to Harriet Tubman and another work by Hammons. The man nobody killed a reference to the controversial 1983 death of Michael Stewart, a young black graffiti artist, while in police custody.
“Ultimately, as our country continues to struggle with issues of racial justice and social inequality,” says Fleming, the show’s lead organizer. “I hope visitors will find the flag and its complex symbolic narrative about race and patriotism something to make them think about their own experience as an American,” she says.
“Settlement: protest. In spite of. Resilience” is on display in the newly designed Visual Art and the American Experience Gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC