Black Arts at Oxy

David Hammons, "Prayer", 1969

David Hammon’s work “Prayer” of 1969 shows a print of a black male figure with hands in prayer formation. The figure wears a sweatshirt, pulled over his head that is tilted back.  The sweatshirt is shear, and reveals the black body underneath.   The viewer’s attention is drawn to the hands of the figure, bold in color and containing defined lines. The print looks much like an X-ray, with its black, white, and grey colors.  Furthermore, the eyes of the man’s face are not printed on the paper and look like mere sockets, resembling a skull. The figure was achieved through the use of Hammon’s own body: as described by Connie Rogers Tilton and Lindsay Charlwood, “To create these works, Hammons literally used his own body as a printing plate - coating his skin or the printing paper with margarine and then pressing his greased body onto the printing paper” (L.A. Object, 93).  One can note the wrinkles and creases of his sweatshirt, the texture of his beard, and the lines of his hands; there is a direct focus on the body, and the black body in particular.  These prints were an opportunity to bring visibility to bodies that have been historically violently oppressed, exploited, and abused. The figure in “Prayer” is awkwardly positioned: his neck appears to be missing as his head rests directly upon his shoulders.  The top of his head, where the hood is place, looks abnormally large - as does his back and upper shoulders.  Therefore, this historic distortion of the body is rendered in Hammons works, as Tilton and Charlwood note, “Viewers of these images are confronted with distorted but readable representations of the body, often appearing frozen in profile or with entire expanses of flesh unraveled onto the printing surface” (L.A. Object, 93).  

The body prints are deeply rooted within the history of the Black arts movement, prevalent in Los Angeles during the 1960’s and 70’s. Noonan argues that these prints can be read with more meaning if they are considered in the period in which they were created, as they ‘include signs drawn from the discourse of Blackness’, which was being questioned at the time. They also help to represent how ‘identity was always mediated by language, discourse, and the authority of the Other’(Noonan 2007). This specific artwork, ‘Prayer’ emphasises and dramatizes this idea that a ‘racial Other alienates the subject’, as the artwork medium is so raw. The print itself is so defined by the physical lines in Hammons' skin, hair and clothing, that it confronts the viewer head on, making it inescapable to question the piece and consider its meaning. Consequently, this gives an immediacy to the artwork which Cooks argues shows the ‘interconnectedness between the personal issues and the political’ (Cooks 2011). For instance, the physical presence of a black-man's body in the artwork, with his hands in a prayer as he looks upwards, wanting and hopeful, alludes to the political change, the artist himself (the figure in the artwork) wanted. This is emphasised by the ‘ghostly’ appearance of the figure in the print, as it is almost as if there would be more solidness and definition to the form of the body’s outlines if issues that the Black Community were dealing with - such as racism, prejudice and targeted aggression - were alleviated and removed from their world.

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