In Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, after a white police officer fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, protestors took to the streets. Rising among the plethora of signs decrying police brutality and pleas for justice, waved the stars and stripes in the colors of red, black and green. The flags were replicas of a celebrated artwork African American Flag, created by the conceptual artist David Hammons, who is recognized as much for his insightful paintings, sculptures and prints, as he is for challenging the art world, and all of its conventions. “I can’t stand art, actually, I’ve never, ever 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 series, as a partial gift from Jan Christiaan Braun, who collaborated with Hammons for the ground-breaking exhibition “Black USA,” which opened at Amsterdam’s Museum Overholland in 1990. When asked why he chose to give African American Flag to the museum, Braun’s response was a simple declaration: “Because it belongs there!”
“The African American Flag is a quintessential David Hammons gesture,” says the New York-based artist and curator Felandus Thames. “It’s his most iconic piece. It situates African Americans as the backbone of the country by the labor it took to build this country.”
By the time of Hammons’ and Braun’s collaboration, the artist’s reputation for brilliance and his capricious nature was already well established. He preferred found materials—chains, wires, tree limbs, empty wine bottles; and he made art in peculiar places, performances that were outside the conventional gallery and museum spaces—selling snowballs on a sidewalk or crafting sculptures from hair swept up from barber shops.
“Hammons challenges conventions of art historical cannons and defies categorization. He also addresses stereotypes and perceptions of African American culture” says Tuliza Fleming, the museum’s curator of American art.
Thames recalls having met Hammons at the Tilton Gallery in 2010. The artist was sitting in the gallery eating olives wearing a hat inside out. It was a private reception where Hammons told the young Thames, who had just graduated from the Yale School of Art, to follow him throughout the night and witness how he engages with the gallery visitors.
They spent another two hours chatting. Thames confesses that Hammons disrupted his studio practice. During another meeting, Hammons showed Thames how to rid himself of his schooling and its rules to create real art. Hammons, says Thames, “is a singular figure in the African American canon because he’s the first Black artist who was accepted totally by the white canon.”
Braun, for his part, had been trying to identify the best Black artists in America for his exhibition, working at the Schomburg Center in Harlem to research Black culture when he set out to find Hammons. The artist routinely avoided such ventures. “The word ‘elusive’ sticks to Hammons like a Homeric epithet,” The New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins once observed. The art historian Kellie Jones, who is one of the few to have conducted an extensive interview with the artist, suggested 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, also about free jazz, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor," Braun explained in a statement. "He pointed my special attention to Sun Ra. We spoke about confusing the boundaries between what's expected and what isn't. We became the best of buddies. And we still are."
For the exhibition, Braun told the artist that he "needed something special to install outside the building," perhaps using the flagpole, as a way to express "a kind of liberation" for Black art. An African American flag was Hammons' response; and on a napkin, he drew an American flag and identified the red, black and green colors.
These were the colors of the Black Liberation Flag created in 1920 by Marcus Garvey, the leader of the Pan-Africanist movement, and members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The flag was meant to mobilize and unite all of the people of the African diaspora. Red denotes the blood that was shed, black is for the people it represents, and green represents the abundant wealth of Africa. The Black Liberation Flag, also known as the Pan-African Flag, was made in response to a song of the period with the racist title, “Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon.” Robert Hill, a historian and Marcus Garvey scholar, has said that Garvey recognized that not having a flag “was a mark of the political impotence of the Black race… and so acquiring a flag would be proof that the Black race had politically come of age.”
The flag that Hammons would create, says Fleming, also called attention to African American pride and heritage in a nation where Black people saw little validation of their worth and contributions to history, culture and society. Hammons has said: “Marcus Garvey designed the African American flag, which looked like the Italian flag except that it is red, black, and green. But it is so abstract, so pure, that the masses were frightened by it. I made my flag because I felt that they needed one like the U.S. flag but with black stars instead of white ones.”
Hammons was born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1943. He moved to Los Angeles in 1963 and enrolled at Los Angeles City College for a year and then took classes at the Otis College of Art. Charles White, the famed artist and husband of Elizabeth Catlett, taught at Otis and invited the cash-strapped Hammons to join his night classes for free. In 1968, he completed his art training at the Chouinard Art Institute. Among his first works were the silk-screen paintings of his Spades series, incorporating caricature-like imprints of his face and rusted garden tools. “I was trying to figure out why Black people were called spades as opposed to clubs,” he told Jones.
In the early '90s, when Hammons moved on to sculpture, he created In the Hood to represent the long struggle Black men have faced against the ongoing issues of police brutality. The green hood hangs upright on a wall, severed from the body of the sweatshirt. “Hammons can make an artwork from a simple gesture,” says Thames. It may not have taken him a long time to create the artwork, but it certainly took generations for others to understand this truth.
Hammons’ banner with its black stars and red and green stripes resonates with that truth. African American Flag is a statement. In Harlem, one flies high outside of the Studio Museum; on the street in front of the building, vendors sell replicas. “Artists have celebrated, interpreted, and provided new interpretations of the American Flag for hundreds of years,” Fleming says, “I think the celebration of freedom embodied in the symbol of the American flag includes the right to critically evaluate it through an artistic lens.”
The museum’s African American Flag is now on view in its ongoing visual arts exhibition, “Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience.” The show includes works like Amy Sherald’s celebrated portrait of Breonna Taylor, Bisa Butler’s homage to Harriet Tubman, and another piece 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 grapple with issues such as racial justice and social inequalities,” says Fleming, the show’s lead organizer. “I hope the visitors will find the flag and its complex symbolic narrative on race and patriotism something that causes them to reflect upon their own experience as Americans,” she says.
“Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience” is on display in the newly redesigned Visual Art and the American Experience gallery of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.