Black Arts at Oxy

John Outterbridge: "Traditional Hang-Up"

John Outterbridge's understanding of nationhood reflected a broad ideology which took into account the experiences of African Americans more holistically, but this understanding was complimented by personal experience of serving in the army at age 19 and seeing many neighbors and friends going off to serve the American military. Outterbridge recounts in an interview that the American flag was dubious because of its use in support of white supremacy, and also expresses pride in the flag’s role in his life. The many African-Americans to serve the military, many of whom died and then a flag was returned to the families who frequently hung them in windows to commemorate their loved one, were influential in his understanding of the American flag as something which could obscure reality, but also as a symbol which could be taken back. This nuance is reflected in “A Traditional Hang-Up.”
    Outterbridge was able to repurpose pre-existing materials and objects and transform their shapes and meanings into works of art, symbolic of ideas that are impactful to him in his life. Rooted in his heritage of African folklore and sculpture, his pieces offer a unique perspective on the traditions and struggles of the African American community, not only in Los Angeles, but also the United States as a whole.
    One of his first assemblage series was known as the Containment Series, comprised of pieces that dealt with the idea of containment – both literally and figuratively. Pieces from this collection dealt with hot topics that were not only prevalent but also personal, including his father’s profession and what it meant to be American born as an African American individual. One piece in particular from his Containment Series was put on display at Occidental College in October of 1971, known as "Traditional Hang Up."
    “Traditional Hang-Up” is unique in that it differs in it’s body from the others in the Containment Series. While some of the materials were alike, containing metal and salvaged materials, its shape did not resemble a similarity and it’s façade had a different appearance. While some of the ideas portrayed in this piece may be similar to that portrayed in “American Born”, it altogether has a distinctive and unique meaning.
As an African American in America, who had previously served in the United States army, the concept of his identity as an American and artist were being challenged. In addition to his feelings that began to stir after the Watts rebellion, there was a sense of injustice to the black community with religion and opportunity. All of these networks fueled and fed into the imagery Outterbridge portrayed in his particular piece.
Drawing on his own personal feelings about being an American, his arrangement of red, white, and blue stars and stripes gives a fragmented view of the American flag not exact imitation. The flag is a piece of steel, rather than the rag or cloth which Outterbridge used in later pieces, which strips it of all the lively animation a flag normally possesses. By changing the nature of the flag, he is able to comment on the representation of African Americans who are not given the opportunity to express themselves as individuals, capable and equal to the white majority.
    The base of Traditional Hang-Up is made from a carved and stained wood, ordained with figurines that resemble skulls all crammed and stacked upon one another, filling the space from the bottom to the top of the assemblage piece. These “skulls” allude to his African American heritage of his ancestor’s arrival and what that process may have looked and felt like. Not only does the base resemble this personal event, but its shape is intersecting with the top, resembling a crucifix, tying in Outterbridge’s feelings concerning his community and their relationship with Christianity.
    Overall, “Traditional Hang-Up” demonstrates the hypocrisy Outterbridge felt as an individual, as been good enough to serve the flag but not good enough to be a part of it, in addition to a commentary on the poor circumstances and situations faced by himself and his peers in the past and in everyday life.

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