The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is offering visitors a last chance to view the iconic portrait of Breonna Taylor in the “Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience.” exhibition located in the Rhimes Family Foundation Gallery of Visual Art and the American Experience through Feb. 12 before it heads to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. Amy Sherald’s posthumous portrait of Taylor, who has become a symbol of ongoing injustice and female power, first appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair’s September 2020 issue.
Breonna Taylor, 2020, by Amy Sherald, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, purchase made possible by a gift from Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg/The Hearthland Foundation, and the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY, purchase made possible by a gift from the Ford Foundation, © Amy Sherald.
The “Reckoning” exhibition is a testament to how artists and photographers have used their voice to pay tribute to those that have been lost, lifting up names such as Eric Garner, George Floyd and Taylor at demonstrations and in communities online. The exhibition journeys from defiance to acceptance, from racial violence and cultural resilience to grief and mourning, hope and change. The “Reckoning” exhibition will be temporarily closed to visitors Feb. 13–23.
Taylor’s portrait will be replaced with David Hammons’ “African-American Flag” (1990). One of the original five flags made in 1990 by Hammons, the artwork is currently on view in the museum’s “Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience.” exhibition and will hold a more prominent position in the exhibition as it replaces the painting of Taylor.
“We are proud to display the original ‘African-American Flag,’” said Kevin Young, the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the museum. “‘African-American Flag’ represents a celebration of liberty and remembrance of freedom denied. While combining the elements of the pan-African and American flags, Hammons emblemizes the promise of freedom and the paradox of liberty for Black Americans through this powerful and influential artwork.”
“African-American Flag” is Hammons’ most iconic and historically important work. It is also a snapshot into a pivotal moment in time: the piece’s creation in 1990 is connected with the release of Nelson Mandela and the election of the first Black mayor of New York City. The importance of the flag cannot be understated—it ties the African American community to a country’s symbol of pride while simultaneously acknowledging its shortcomings.
The colors of Hammons’ flag are based on the “Black Liberation Flag” created in 1920 by Marcus Garvey under the auspices of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.), which Garvey founded in 1914. Hammons’ adoption of the colors of U.N.I.A.’s flag denotes his interest in calling attention to African American pride in heritage as well as a nation where Black people saw little validation of their worth and contributions to history, culture and society. In 1992 Hammons 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…”
Through its visual arts collection, the National Museum of African American History and Culture documents a comprehensive representation of art produced by African Americans. However, a significant aspect of its collecting has been, and continues to be, focused on art that engages with issues of social and political justice and the tragedy and triumphs of the Black experience. The museum documents, collects and preserves current expressions of protest and hope so that the world, in the present and future, can understand the role that race has played in the nation’s complicated 400-year history.
This special artwork is a partial gift of Jan Christiaan Braun, who curated the groundbreaking exhibition “Black USA” in Amsterdam in 1990, for which “Africa-American Flag” was created, with museum purchase supported by The Ford Foundation and the Mellon Foundation.