Black Arts at Oxy

John Outterbridge, "Traditional Hang Up," 1969

John Outterbridge uses everyday objects and materials and transforms them into works which are not predicated on notions of beauty, but on understanding his surroundings and other peoples' lives. Much of Outterbridge's work makes use of his exposure to African folklore and Gullah culture (the last group of people in North and South Carolina to speak creole and retain majority African traditions) over the course of his upbringing in the South. Outterbridge's assemblage pieces offer a unique perspective on the traditions and struggles within the African American community in part because of the convergence of black folk culture and city concerns and sensibilities in his sculptures. 
    The piece "Traditional Hang Up" was put on display at Occidental College in October of 1971. It is an assemblage allows Outterbridge to juxtapose diverse materials to achieve a patchwork effect. Disjuncture factors in heavily to any reading of "Traditional Hang-Up" because it sets the tone of irony and hypocrisy that appears in the individual elements of the sculpture. The piece was part of Outterbridge's first assemblage series called the Containment Series. Other works from the Containment Series deal with physical and psychological restriction; many are panels using metal and highlight industrialism. Among those works, "Traditional Hang Up" stands out for its unusual T-shape which resembles a partial crucifix and for its overt politics by incorporating an American flag. 
      The arrangement of the stars and stripes in the piece creates only a fragmented view of the American flag not an 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 comments on the representation of African Americans who are not given the opportunity to express themselves as individuals to the same extent as the white majority. 
      Similarly to the way he saw the flag operating as a tool of deception, Outterbridge viewed the relationship of African-Americans to Christianity as fraught with lies. While in many later works, spirituality is plays an affirmative role, in "Traditional Hang-Up" the crucifix-like shape speaks to Outterbridge's view that Christianity had done as much to justify violence against African-Americans as it had done to provide them spiritual support.
    The bottom half of "Traditional Hang-Up" is made from a carved wood, which is filled with figurines that resemble skulls stacked one upon the other. These skulls allude to the mass murder of Africans on trans-Atlantic slave ships and the deaths of so many more black people by the hand of slave owners, lynching mobs, and governmental authorities after reaching American land. The name of the piece and its T-shaped composition extend the reference to murder: the name refers to hanging, and the shape hints at the shape of gallows.
     John Outterbridge critiques nationhood and the American flag as false propaganda for a country which has from its genesis instituted governance and spirituality for the purpose of systematically killing and oppressing African Americans. Additionally, a flag left tattered is seen as a sign of disrespect, and this element of "Traditional Hang-Up" implies that murder of African-Americans has brought disgrace to the flag and to the country. This broader understanding of the flag's significance was complimented by Outterbridge's personal experiences with the flag. He enlisted in the army at age 19 and saw many neighbors and friends go serve the American military during his youth. Outterbridge recounts in an interview that he considered the American flag dubious because of its use in support of white supremacy; however, he also expresses pride in the flag’s role in his life and in the many African-Americans he knew to serve under the flag. It often decorated windows of homes in his childhood neighborhood to commemorate family members who died in military service. While "Traditional Hang Up" critiques the flag as a symbol which obscures reality, Outterbridge viewed it as a symbol which can be taken back.

Page created by Vanessa Todd and Allison Wendt in December 2016.

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