How YA LIKE ME NOW? was the question emblazoned across the portrait by black artist David Hammons, improbably depicting Jesse Jackson as a blue-eyed, pink-cheeked blond. “Not much at all,” was the early response from critics: On Nov. 29, moments after the 14-by 14-foot enamel-on-tin work was installed on a Washington, D.C., street by employees of the Washington Project for the Arts, 10 angry young black men attacked it with a sledgehammer, knocking down all but its subject’s brow.
Hammons, 46, is saddened by the assault but feels no anger toward the vandals. “I just wanted people to see how racism in America works,” he says. “If Jesse Jackson were white, he would be President today.” Jackson himself viewed the painting after its dismemberment and admits that at first he was a bit startled to see himself in whiteface. But, Jesse says, “The portrait is not an attempt to degrade me. It is a statement of the white solution to the race problem—white folks want all of us to be white like them.”
The assault on the Jackson portrait was ironically reminiscent of conservative attacks that led to a cancellation of the late Robert Mapplethorpe’s controversial photos of gays at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery last September, and it isn’t the first of Hammons’s creations to come under fire. Last year, his Higher Goals, consisting of a basketball hoop atop a 55-foot phone pole, was cut down in a lot in Harlem. “I made my point though,” maintains the Illinois native, who is working on an art fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. “Young black men need to understand that basketball is not the only road to success. Part of an artist’s role is to ruffle sacred feathers.”
The WPA has removed the remnants of How Like Me Now? and will replace the work with a sign about the meaning of what took place. Jackson has another, even more original idea. “I’d like to see the pieces of the portrait stay—along with the sledgehammer,” he says. “They both represent the anger felt by blacks.”