David Hammons’ 1990 “African American Flag” is now the featured work in the “Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience” exhibition at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Silkscreened on cotton fabric in an edition of ten, Hammons’ 85 x 56.5-inch flag is considered a snapshot of a decisive moment in time: in 1990, Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and David Dinkins was elected New York City’s first Black mayor.
It bears the colors of the Black Liberation Flag, created by Marcus Garvey in 1920 for the Universal Negro Improvement Association, his organization dedicated to championing Black pride, racial unity, and the need to free Africa from white rule. Hammons’ homage is a valuable work of art in its own right and sold at auction in 2017 for more than $2 million.
The exhibition chronicles events that took place across the U.S. after police officers killed Black civilians including George Floyd, Eric Garner, and Breonna Taylor. “It takes visitors on a journey from defiance to acceptance, from racial violence and cultural resilience, to grief and mourning, hope and change,” said Melissa Wood, a media manager at the Smithsonian Institution.
David Hammons is known for drawings, sculptures, and performance art, including the early “body prints” he made by greasing himself with margarine, pressing his body into large sheets of paper, then dusting the images with ground pigment to emphasize skin color, body parts, and clothing. After attending art schools in California, he joined the scene of ’70s New York, where he made sculptures from “the detritus of urban African American life.” This included hair gathered from barbershop floors, chicken bones, and empty liquor bottles: works described by MoMA’s curators as “iconic examples of American Conceptual Art.” They call installations like a foreboding metal basketball hoop and a sweatshirt hood mounted like an African mask “critical commentaries on the clichés of growing up African American in the U.S., from the nearly impossible aspiration of becoming a sports hero to the danger of wearing everyday outfits that are perceived as menacing.”
In addition to MoMA, Hammons’ art is in the permanent collections of major museums including SFMOMA, the Whitney, the Walker Art Center, and the Studio Museum of Harlem. I’d been hoping to speak with him about the installation at NMAAHC, but as widely reported, he does not consent to interviews. As stated in his MoMA biography, the artist is “[reluctant] to participate in exhibitions of his own work [and] fiercely [guards] his status as a cultural outsider, while simultaneously continuing to produce work that reinforces his reputation as one of the most relevant and influential living American artists.”
“Mr. Hammons doesn’t have to show up for commentary; he has spoken,” said Dr. Cheryl D. Holmes Miller, a graphic designer who has taught at Howard University, Art Center College of Design, and the University of Texas. “Are we listening [to]— which far exceeds the task of merely viewing— the flag?”
While Dr. Miller underlined that she is not an art critic, she is passionate about advocating for social justice in the fields of art and design. “I can say that the African American flag gives visual creatives of all colors hope and the inspiration to create unapologetically,” she continued. “Now, global visitors can ponder its meaning for themselves. It is an artifact that speaks on its own terms, charging us to its truths.”
Dr. Miller said she thinks the flag poses an important question to its viewers: “Are we hearing righteousness wave? We should, and be inspired to make art a tool for social justice, change and democracy.”
“I see hope for freedom, prosperity and unity for all Black people in the U.S.,” said Rakibat Abiola, who teaches English Language Learners at an international high school in Brooklyn, New York. “Whether we are African-American, African immigrants, Caribbean immigrants, Caribbean Americans, Afro-Latinos, biracial and multiracial Blacks, and other Black identities.”
Over several days, I was able to connect with members of the African American Graphic Designers Facebook group and ask their opinions. Many look at the flag and see conflict instead of freedom, prosperity, and unity, while some see as one artist’s work rather than an authentic symbol emanating from a broader movement. “This is just commercial art,” commented Austin, Texas-based designer and illustrator Terrence Moline. “To me, the American flag is like the N-word. It has always been a symbol of contradiction and oppression. Colors cannot change that.”
Brand strategy team leader Craig Brimm from Atlanta saw something a bit more pointed and subversive in Hammons’ flag. “It looks like a boogie man flag. Something to scare the shit out of white folks,” he said.
Paul James, a Brooklyn creative who specializes in urban and multicultural markets, isn’t entirely sure the flag is successful. “This flag has good intentions, but its message misses the mark,” he wrote. “In the constant battle for full affirmation of African American lives, it says that Black people are here. But using Pan-African colors for the traditional design creates a posture of conflict. It’s a reaction to imposed conditions, an honorable but misguided attempt to project being fully part of the American experience while being different and apart.”
Like Moline, James sees the American flag as essentially unchangeable. “If you want to righteously claim America, claim the traditional flag, all of it, and make it yours,” he continued. “Rock the red, white and blue… with dreads, an ankh tat, gold fronts and a college degree.”
Atlanta-based illustrator Donald G. Wooten sees Hammons’ flag as a superficial gesture towards a larger, ongoing structural problem. “What could this piece of cloth clarify for the past, present or future America… Black, white or otherwise? Not. A. Damn. Thing,” he commented. “So let’s be realistic. It doesn’t stop bullets. It can’t keep a family warm. While you may be able to picnic atop it, you can’t eat it. You can’t wear it to improve your chances at a job interview, be considered fairly for anything involving credit, or lessen the extra attention Black men such as myself get from the authorities or from anybody else that has the privilege of considering themselves superior.”
While many designers of color are split on whether or not Hammons’ flag accomplishes its goals, it can be seen flying in windows, doorways, and stoops in historically Black neighborhoods like Harlem. It is a symbol of pride that continues to resonate with many, including a designer in the Facebook group who asked to remain anonymous. “My most profound experience with Hammons’s African American Flag was when it hung as a banner at the 125th Street entrance of the Studio Museum in Harlem,” they said. “It carried so much meaning not only because of the confluence of the Pan-African colors replacing the red, white and blue of the stars and stripes, but as a symbol proudly celebrating the art and artists of the African Diaspora. The Studio Museum building…is being [rebuilt, and] I can’t wait to see the flag there again, welcoming all to the new space. Until then, the red, black, and green flag lives on in many versions sold by street vendors throughout Harlem.”
Free timed-entry passes to the National Museum of African American History and Culture are available on their website.
Header image by Rob Corder on Flickr.