By Emmet Powell (‘23)
In the late 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement struggled in pursuit of social justice and equal rights under the law for Black Americans in the United States. At the forefront of the movement were artists like David Hammons, who used their work to progress the cause. Hammons resided in and around Watts during the 1960s, a key battle ground in the fight for equality. As a result, his work was politically driven and rooted in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement. David Hammons’s Injustice Case is a commanding “body print” that brought to light atrocities inflicted on blacks nationwide. Injustice Case is an emblem of the Black Arts Movement as it is a confrontation to the existing status quo on race and destabilizes hegemonic power.
Injustice Case portrays Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers, bound tightly in a cloth framed by a lusterless American flag, alluding to the infamous Trial of the Chicago Eight. Restrained in a chair, Hammons illustrates Seale to be struggling for freedom. The unique form creates a work that resembles photo negatives. The opaque image creates an eerie visual that feels sickening and violating. The wisps of black dehumanize Seale who is left skeleton-like, stripped of all his dignity. The chair, a key attribute of a United States court room, is a source of constraint not freedom in the image. This flips social expectations as the country prided itself on its legal system which preached “liberty and justice for all.” Injustice Case shows that justice was not available and is a denunciation of racial stereotypes. The title Injustice Case implies that this is one of many racial injustices going on. On a macro level the image speaks to the identity of Black America.
The deceptively simple yet profoundly inspirational work embodies the black experience in America during the 1960s. The subject personifies Black people’s inability to free themselves from white oppression, an oppression that went beyond the streets and bled into politics and law. The work of art exposes injustice in the judicial system. The life size piece is meant to be subversive and politically charged: “I feel that my art relates to my total environment—my being a black, political, and social human being.”(1) Hammons looked to use everyday materials in his art. Using body as a paintbrush and grease as paint, he centers his work in the Black experience.
At the time of his body prints, others too saw the ever growing disconnect between being an African American and an American citizen. The portrait recalls the astonishing courtroom sketch of Bobby Seale during the 1969 trial of the Chicago Eight. The trial concerned a group of eight men who were accused of inciting riots during the Democratic National Convention of 1968. After being denied the right to defend himself in court, Seale was gagged in response to his repeated disruption. His inalienable rights–as an American citizen and more fundamentally as a human being–were grossly violated. The infamous courtroom illustration became a sign of the injustice of the American legal system for African Americans. The image resonated with many and became a catalyst for change.
Hammons continues the momentum of the sketch and uses it as an effective means to point out the discrimination during the time. Depicting Seale conjures ideas of rebellion against the country as Seale and his Black Panther Party were committed to “defend the community against the aggression of the power structure.”(2) Seale is portrayed as suffering for the Civil Rights cause and is used to inspire heroic ideals. Violence is explicitly displayed in Hammon’s subject whose bonded figure connotes struggle and suffering. The brutality of work further corresponds to the Black Panther Party who advocated for political revolution through armed resistance. Art from the Black Panther Party newspaper displayed imagery of guns, bloodshed, and combat. Revolutionary art was an essential part in the fight for liberation by “giving visual expression to the conditions and feelings of oppression in black communities.” (3) It is an art that is stationed in people’s thoughts, their lives, and their struggles. Through its grotesque representation, Injustice Case emphasizes the physical abuse of discrimination and calls out the behavior of the American public as barbaric.
The body art serves to give new and transformative power to the flag. The American flag that appears dull in comparison to the stark white sheet of paper marks a major critique on the country’s ideals that were preached, but not reality, in postmodern America. Hammons throws the iconic nature of the flag into question in his body print. The American flag, synonymous with democracy, contrasts an image of justice with an image of torturous persecution. The politically charged symbol’s proximity to the Seale’s body integrates the American flag and the country as a whole. The juxtaposition of the frame and image reveal the country’s state as a clash with democracy. The work exercises the freedom to speak out for rights in the social context of racial discrimination. The flag would continue to become a visual reference of the struggles of people who could not fully exercise their rights as Americans.
The process of creating Injustice Case–not just the finished product–is a bold act of counter hegemony. Hammons blends the act of graphic art with performance. To make the piece, Hammons covered his head and entire body with margarine and then pressed the greased areas onto large sheets of paper. He then dusted the resulting impression with powdered pigment. The physical act thereby inserts his own body into the art. Hammons tethers his body and takes away his own freedom to create an image of a real life event that asserts his own frustration about racism and stereotypes present in not only society, but in the court of law. Injustice Case takes art “””off the wall“”” and down to the floor creating work that is deeply personal and reflective. Hammons fully challenges the nature of the art world by reinventing new ways to create art. He also refused interviews and requests for exhibitions, selling work himself rather than through a gallery. Using his body in unprecedented ways, Hammons’s art opposed prevailing social norms in art; however, the counter hegemony expanded beyond art and into culture.
Paintings like Injustice Case served to contribute to the Black Arts Movement which raised America’s consciousness of Black people’s presence in culture. Groups like Spiral, COBRA, and BECC, developed to portray the black identity in America (4). The movement protested the lack of presence of African American art as it was often excluded and ignored as a source of talent. The moment sought to change culture in the world of art and society: “The Black Arts Movement sought to link, in a highly conspicuous manner, art and politics in order to assist in the liberation of Black people.” (5) Through activism and art, Black Art created new cultural institutions and conveyed a message of black pride. Hammons was no doubt influenced by the movement, yet his work was able to further inspire and progress the cause. Artists like Hammons used their art as a means of protest against an establishment that discouraged self expression and failed to recognize artists of color. Their works gave Black artists a voice in the art community and a way to give complete vision of themselves. And successful they were as their disturbance and efforts resulted in more inclusion of black’s work in museums. Soon after, Black artists began to be acknowledged for their achievement in culture as their recognition rightfully increased.
Hammons comments on problems and topics that are—sadly—still as pertinent today as they were when he first started his profession. The message of Injustice Case is one that is fresh, pertinent, and continues to remind us of the inequality ever present in the country. In fact, some of Hammons’s other body art has been used in social media posts, newspaper articles, and picket signs in the wake of the George Floyd murder. Hammons not only reimagined art but transcended time; his work equally questions twenty first century Americans as it did to postwar Americans. In a manner that redefined art, Hammons made an indelible impression on both art and history: “Hammons deliberately references something larger than himself: a history of blackness, a history of race relations; which is nothing less than a history of America itself.”(6) Injustice Case amends the history of the country that is largely told through a white lens. Hammons inserts an African American voice into the story of the country’s history in order to recall the suffering of his people as a means to demand change.
Hammons showed how surreal, moving, and beautiful Black artist’s work could be. He created art that was attentive to real time rather than markets. In a style that was signature to himself, he produced art that was genuine and packed with emotion rooted in personal experience. Injustice Case recalls heinous atrocities in hope for a brighter future for the American people. It deploys recent political and social events to raise awareness and illustrate what is to come after the fight for Civil Rights is won. Injustice Case does not only deal with social justice but also art’s innate ability to confront issues. Hammons expands the power of art and utilizes it as a vehicle for social and political transformation. Injustice Case pushed an ethical view that posed as a challenge to a society that was still racist. He orchestrated an image that sought to create an alternative hegemony on the terrain of civil society. Injustice Case displays a unique ability to merge seemingly incongruous genres into art that inspires and facilitates progress.
Emmet Powell is an American Studies and Economics major at the University of Notre Dame. His article was originally written for Professor Erika Doss’s American Studies course, ‘Off the Wall: Post WWII American Art.’ His favorite American Studies class is Professor Peter Cajka’s ‘Witnessing the Sixties.’
1. Baraka, Amiri. “A Poem for Black Hearts.” Modern Art in the USA (2001): 309.
2. Gaiter, Colette. “The Revolution Will Be Televised: Black Panther Artist Emory Douglas.” West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in Experiment in America (2012): 242.
3. Filipovic, Elena. David Hammons: Bliz-aard Ball Sale (Afterall Books, 2017): 92.
4. Doss, Erika. American Art of the 20th-21st Centuries (Oxford University Press, 2017): 194.
5. “News – Regen Projects.” Accessed November 6, 2020. https://www.regenprojects.com/news.
6. “Recent Works by David Hammons at LACMA.” Unframed. Accessed November 4, 2020. https://unframed.lacma.org/2011/08/25/recent-works-by-david-hammons-at-lacma.
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