Black Arts at Oxy

David Hammons, "Prayer", 1969

David Hammons’s work “Prayer” of 1969 shows a body 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 sheer, and reveals the black body underneath.   The viewer’s attention is drawn to the hands of the figure, which contain the darkest contrasts and most defined lines of the print. The print looks much like an X-ray, with its black, white, and grey colors.  The figure is awkwardly positioned: his neck appears to be missing as his head rests directly upon his shoulders. It looks as though he is sinking into his own frame; his body is literally shrunken. The top of his head, where the hood is place, looks abnormally large - as does his back and upper shoulders. Furthermore, the eyes of the man’s face are not printed on the paper and look like mere sockets, resembling a skull. This skeletal appearance of the body is perhaps meant to be a comment on death, and the death of black men in particular. The black male body is one that has been historically oppressed, exploited, abused, and at the very least, unrepresented. Such themes are clearly present in "Prayer" through such a distortion of the body in print form. 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."

The printed figure was achieved through the use of Hammons’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.”  Hammons thus had to intimately interact with his materials in order to create his body prints; he gives the works a "hauntingly physical presence." Due to the direct one can note the wrinkles and creases of Hammons's sweatshirt, the texture of his beard, and the lines of his hands. His black body is entirely translated onto a two-dimensional surface.

Hammons's prints are deeply rooted within the history of the Black Arts movement, prevalent in Los Angeles during the 1960s and 70s. Scholar Jennifer Noonan argues that these prints can be read with more meaning if they are understood in the period in which they were created, as they ‘include signs drawn from the discourse of Blackness’ - a subject largely questioned at the time. During this period, there were many stereotypes and beliefs surrounding the African American Community that were being broken down and scrutinised due to ignorance and insensitivity; this was a time of change. Communities were coming together in order to break down barriers between cultures, remove ridiculous ideologies surrounding particular groups and stop discrimination. An example of this is the exhibition we are currently discussing, the' Black Art: The Black Experience' Exhibition held at Occidental College. The college was and still is a place of learning that attempts to create an atmosphere of inclusion and acceptance of people from all races and lifestyles. 

These prints also help to represent how ‘identity was always mediated by language, discourse, and the authority of the Other’. By this, it is suggested that certain histories and beliefs surrounding minority groups are often written by those who are not directly involved with these cultures, and therefore are often wrong or absurd. However, in this case of 'Prayer,' due to the artist himself being African American, and the subject matter also expressing the plights that African Americans deal with, one can see this as a more honest and realistic representation of the Black Community. The work does not hesitate to disregard or ignore any aspect of life that stigmatizes other communities - it is unbiased.

‘Prayer’ emphasizes the idea that a ‘racial other alienates the subject,’ due to the immediacy of its medium and style. The physical lines that make up Hammons's skin, hair and clothing, define the artwork, creating a sense of urgency and rawness that confronts the viewer head on, and encourages them to question the piece and consider its meaning. Consequently, the Art Historian Cooks, argues that this element of 'Prayer' also emphasises the ‘interconnectedness between the personal issues [of the artist] and the political’issues of the time
. For instance, as the figure stands, with his hands cupped in prayer looking upwards, wanting and hopeful, it not only refers to the political change, the artist himself (the figure in the artwork) wanted, but also the personal issues he was experiencing (that he did not want to exist) caused by prejudice and discrimination, from incorrect beliefs people had surrounding his race. 

Another aspect of the of this artwork which emphasises these political and personal issues, is the ‘ghostly’ appearance of the figure. The lines lack any true solidness or definition, which suggestively represent the struggles that the African American Community were experiencing. If, in the case that these issues
such as racism, prejudice and targeted aggression, were non existent or eliminated, it is possible that the figures outlines could have been more prominent and obvious, in turn giving the man a greater boldness and strength. It is also important to note here that the artwork is only in Black and white, there is an absence of colour. This suggests that materially and metaphorically the artwork is about a binary; a presence and absence. It is ironic that, what we can physically see in the artwork, represents metaphorically what society lacks. 

Page created by Sophia McGinty and Katherine Torrey, December 2016.


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