David Hammons

Mostly about art, but with some ethnic slurs, visual puns, and symbolic flags.

In the November 2nd New Yorker a piece “A Tale of Two Cities: The Old Guard meets a new crop in “Greater New York.”” by Andrea K. Scott, about the current show at MOMA PS1. Illustrated by David Hammons’s “African-American Flag”, which stands in the courtyard at the entrance to the museum:


A version of the U.S. flag done in the three colors of the Pan-African flag: red, black, and green instead of red, whte, and blue.

On the Pan-African flag, from Wikipedia:

The Pan-African flag — also known as the UNIA flag, Afro-American flag and Black Liberation Flag — is a tri-color flag consisting of three equal horizontal bands of (from top down) red, black and green.

The Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) formally adopted it on August 13, 1920 in Article 39 of the Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World,


The official UNIA account of the meaning of the colors:

Red: the blood that unites all people of Black African ancestry, and shed for liberation;

Black: black people whose existence as a nation, though not a nation-state, is affirmed by the existence of the flag; and power;

Green: the abundant natural wealth of Africa

And now to Hammons. A few Wikipedia highlights:

David Hammons (born 1943) is an American artist especially known for his works in and around New York City and Los Angeles during the 1970s and 1980s.

… [In L.A.] he was influenced by internationally known white artists such as Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari, and Chris Burden, but was also part of a pioneering group of African-American artists and jazz musicians in Los Angeles, with influence outside the area. In 1974 Hammons settled in New York City

… Much of his work reflects his commitment to the civil rights and Black Power movements. A good example is the early Spade with Chains (1973), where the artist employs a provocative, derogatory term, coupled with the literal gardening instrument, in order to make a visual pun between the blade of a shovel and an African mask, and a contemporary statement about the issues of bondage and resistance. This was part of a larger series of “Spade” works in the 1970s, including “Bird” (1973), where Charlie Parker is evoked by a spade emerging from a saxophone, “Spade,” a 1974 print where the artist pressed his face against the shape leaving a caricature-like imprint of Negroid features

Spade with Chains:


On spade, in various senses, see Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words column of 11/24/01 on the subject:

Every now and then, some dispute flares up in the United States that reminds us that sensitivities over language in that country run especially deep [note: Quinion is British].

The specific occasion was a meeting of the Sacramento City Council last week, reported in the Sacramento Bee, in which one speaker, to emphasise his point, said “I think we should call a spade a spade”. A Councilwoman, African-American, objected to this vigorously, saying it was an “ethnically and racially derogatory remark”.

Most people know that to call a spade a spade means that we should avoid euphemism, be straightforward, use blunt or plain language. Most Americans also know that spade is a rather outmoded derogatory slang term for an African-American. Putting the two ideas together, though, requires a person whose sensitivity to possibly offensive language is greater than their knowledge of word history. (Nothing new about that, though: remember all the fuss in Washington in 1999 over the word niggardly, and all those in the US who think picnic refers to the lynching of a slave.)

First of all, the spade in the expression isn’t the same spade as in the slang term. The first is undoubtedly the digging implement. The second is the suit of cards. In the latter case, the allusion was to the colour of the suit, and originally appeared in the fuller form as black as the ace of spades. The abbreviated form spade seems to have grown up sometime in the early part of last century (it first appears in print in the 1920s). Though they’re the same word historically — both derive from Greek spathe for a blade or paddle — the one you dig with came into Old English from an intermediate Germanic source, while the card sense arrived via Italian spade, the plural of spada, a sword.


An oddity is that to call a spade a spade is a mistranslation. The original was a line that the classical Greek writer Plutarch wrote some 2000 years ago about the Macedonians. He intended much the same idea — suggesting that the Macedonians were too crude and unsubtle a people to do anything other than use blunt words — but he used the word skaphe, variously a trough, basin, bowl, or boat. It seems the medieval scholar Erasmus misread it when translating the line into Latin and Nicholas Udall copied him when making his 1542 English version. The phrase has been in the language ever since.

If Erasmus had got it right, we might now be telling people to call a trough a trough, and Sacramento would have been spared the recent fuss.

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