Artist and Writer James Hannaham Puts the Sign in Signification

An art exhibit flips the script on racist signage from the Jim Crow era


Over the past four years, America has gotten a good look into its cracked mirror: The president of the United States characterized white supremacists as “fine people” who should “stand by,” in case (insert ethnic slur/ demeaning political characterization/ gender insult here) tried to steal the country.

Plus ça change. In his exhibition “Jim Crow Hell No,” James Hannaham looks back at an era when signs across the country blatantly enforced segregation at drinking fountains, bathrooms, lunch counters, schools, neighborhoods, and elsewhere in the American Dream. While Trump has used coded (if crude) language at times — the “Wuhan virus,” “shithole countries” — even he (though those “even he” goalposts are forever moving, where POTUS 45 is concerned) never put a “Whites Only” sign over any White House bathroom door.

As the press release for Hannaham’s show points out, back in the day Black activists conducted “funerals” for Jim Crow and hoisted placards decrying racism at protest rallies. But these weren’t the permanent signs in wood, metal, or neon that starkly divided the races. Hannaham knows his way around words, having written for many publications (including the Village Voice) and winning a PEN/Faulkner award for his novel Delicious Foods. But he also understands that words can coalesce into powerful images and that a sign can signify more than the sum of its text.

A urinal turned upside down and titled “Colored Fountain” (2021) may at first seem more offensive than a “Whites Only” sign from last century. But anyone who has sat through Art History 101 knows that Hannaham is sending up a seminal piece of modernism, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain — a gamechanger as to what could be considered “fine art” in 1917.  Hannaham’s 2021 incarnation indicates a shift in cultural power, because, as the press release notes, back in the Jim Crow era such “snark would almost certainly have proven fatal.”

Hannaham’s art, like his writing, abounds with humor. I defy anyone not to laugh — okay, actually there are around 74-million-plus folks in the U.S. who maybe won’t chuckle — at his enamel on aluminum sign asking, “Have You Kissed Our Black Asses Yet? Try It Today!”

Like the German painter Anselm Kiefer, whose massive canvases of ruined Nazi architecture attempt to come to grips with his country’s vicious past, Hannaham uses all manner of materials — charcoal, wood, oil, milk paint, fire, paste wax, gold leaf, found objects, dirt — to evoke an ugly, abraded history.

Only this time, the righteous get the last laugh.  ❖

What: Jim Crow Hell No
When: February 18 – April 1, 2021
Opening Reception: Thursday, February 18, 7 – 9 PM
Where: Open Source Gallery
306 17th Street, Brooklyn


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