Unpacking Henry Taylor's Hammons-Hyena Holiday

Henry Taylor, Hammons meets a hyena on holiday, 2016. Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
Henry Taylor's paintings layer art history and cryptic jokes. Take Hammons meets a hyena on holiday, a 2016 acrylic painting in MOCA's "Henry Taylor: B Side" (at Grand Ave. through Apr. 30, 2023). Savvy viewers will understand the subject as David Hammons' now-famous 1983 performance of selling snowballs on a New York sidewalk. But why the hyena? And why Santa Claus, whose suit is hanging on a fence at right and whose reindeer photobomb at upper left?

Dawoud Bey, Bliz-aard Ball Sale I, 1983

Taylor's painting is based on Dawoud Bey's photographs of Hammons' performance (titled Bliz-aard Ball Sale). The best-known Bey photo is black and white and shows Hammond with snowballs of various sizes arrayed on a small striped carpet. To the right is a more typical street vendor offering bagged produce. Taylor's painting omits the produce vendor but includes the iron fence or gate shown in Bey's photograph. 

Dawoud Bey, image of Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983

Another Bey image, in color, shows a dark jacket (not Santa's) hanging on the fence. 

Hammons' performance got little attention at the time, and he rarely does interviews. It is inferred that Bliz-aard Ball Sale was a critique of the 1980s art market and the marginal place of Black artists and performance within it. Hammons was selling (or more accurately, setting himself up to fail at selling) something personal and handmade to an uninterested public. His product's shelf-life was as short as the performance of which it was a part.

Great Mosque of Djenné. Photo by Ruud Zwart. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5

Bliz-aard Ball Sale took place in front of a tall building in Cooper Square, lower Manhattan. The backdrop of Taylor's painting is completely different, based on the Great Mosque of Djenn√©, Mali. Built in 1907, the mud structure is one of the most photographed works of African architecture. Taylor uses this motif to create a strident color chord of earthy orange-red, black, and sky blue. The minarets' paired openings glower like eyes in hoods.

Pieter Hugo, Abdullahi Mohammed with Mainasara, Ogere-Remo, Nigeria, 2007

The painting's hyena links Hammons' practice to the "Hyena Men" of Nigeria. They are street performers who attract crowds by putting their arms or heads in a hyena's jaws. This segues to a sales pitch for a tonic they claim is responsible for their strength and bravery. The hyena act is a medicine show, and the tonic is a way of monetizing the performance. South African photographer Pieter Hugo did a series of images of the Hyena Men, published in a 2008 book. (The muted colors in the photograph above are natural, due to seasonal harmattan winds that whip up Sahara sand into a gray smog.) 

In Taylor's painting Hammons eyes the hyena warily while holding a snowball. He appears ready to lob it at the hyena.

To wrap all this up: Taylor's picture likens Hammons' Bliz-aard Ball Sale to African street performances. The artist, like the street-performing daredevil, subverts the logic of ordinary life. A hyena would have to be visiting Manhattan ("on holiday"). Or maybe the painting imagines Hammons on holiday, taking his snowball shtick to Africa. Taylor has free-associated "holiday" into a riff on Santa Claus at the painting's margins. St. Nick is now a secular saint who has been commercialized. Taylor depicts the act of commerce that launched Hammons' career as an art-world "saint"—a merry prankster selling a humbug.