Hammons was working in Europe when he met the renowned Curator Christiaan Braun, who was organizing an exhibition of African American artists at the Museum Overholland in Amsterdam; the exhibition would also feature artists Jules Allen, Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Robert Colescott, Martin Puryear and Bill Traylor. It was in the context of this show celebrating African American artists in Amsterdam that the nylon version of Hammons’ African American Flag made its initial debut in the museum’s courtyard in a deliberate gesture to his earlier street interventions. Ten years later, this first iteration was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, while another example from this suite of flags hangs outside the Studio Museum in Harlem, solidifying these potent objects’ position in the larger canon of art history. The present work has been included in additional exhibitions from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Philadelphia, imparting a rich exhibition history to this superlative work.
Towering in scale, African American Flag is a dramatic depiction of the United States of America flag as it was conceived in 1959, after Hawaii’s inclusion as the 50th state. Combining the composition and structure of the symbolic United States of America flag with the Pan-African flag, adopted by the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL), African American Flag unites two distinct and inextricably linked histories of North America. Although America prides itself on the “self-evident truth” that all men are created equal, the uncomfortable and very real truth that this equality and freedom were achieved at the expense of an entire demographic of people is an uncomfortable fact in the nation’s history. The striking image of the American flag is nearly made mundane by its omnipresence in schools and institutions, as well as its association with patriotic holidays throughout the year. In private homes, federal buildings, courthouses and libraries across the nation, the flag soars proudly and triumphantly symbolizing the American Dream, freedom and liberty, yet occluding the harsh realities of how those ideals were achieved. For many, the ethos of the American Dream remains inaccessible, especially to those whose ancestors were excluded from Thomas Jefferson’s statement that all men are created equal. In a declarative act similar to Jefferson’s in 1776, the UNIA-ACL in 1920 created the Pan-African Flag as a powerful companion to the red, white and blue of Old Glory. Stark in its composition and arresting in its vibrant colors, the Pan-African Flag is an equally powerful image that stands for the liberation of people from African origin, the red, black and green bands and stars representing the blood, skin color and rich natural resources of an entire continent, respectively.
In addition to his reinvention of the flag in the service of social critique, Hammons also enters into a renegotiation of art and objecthood. His African American Flag not only addresses the identity of a nation and its racial politics, but also examines its own ontological identity. Constructed of sewn fabric, the present work literally is a flag, but in the same vein as those of Jasper Johns, invites questions of its dual quiddity as a representation of a flag. Unlike Johns’ flags embalmed in encaustic and wax, Hammons’ flag retains its supple and flexible quality, draping naturally according to the way it is hung. Its physicality as an object is such that it could be plucked off a wall and raised up a flagpole, reinventing its significance in a less pristine context than white gallery walls. Hammons deftly conflates these two identities in the present work, applying the allegorical colors of the Pan-African flag to the structure of the American flag, resulting in a complicated image that is both instantly recognizable and completely foreign. The immediacy of this image portrayed under a new guise reflects an evolution of a patriotic emblem and prompts a reexamination of the values it represents.
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