Testing the Boundries of Tradition

The physical and material inclusion of hair in art is a contemporary phenomenon and tests the boundaries of traditional art, the real hair in an art piece is an intrusion of reality into what is more comfortably viewed as a discrete art object. The inclusion of hair recalls human presence, social interactions, and physical mortality (Klayman 1998).

Perhaps no contemporary black artist is better known for the creation of artworks made of human hair than David Hammons. Hammons’s utilization of hair as a materials that was once in direct physical contact with black people “strongly resonated with similar artistic practices and religious beliefs among West and Central African peoples” (Jacobson 2002:2). His work is an inquiry into the substance that is black hair and it is extensively employed in his art objects and installations as part of his on-going examination of race and social politics. Hammons “seeks a visual and tactile parallel for racism” (Klayman 1998: 26) with his work in black hair. His art emphasizes the differences between the races while refusing the racist stigma of inferiority and to aggravate the stereotypical perceptions and rejections of black integration in white society.

Hair once removed from the head, its seat of distinction, takes on new associations as discard and filth. A wayward strand is dirty and insidious; it acquires morbid and base connotations quite different from the associations with a healthy head of hair. Hammons’ recombining of this disembodied, discarded hair into new formations invests the substance with poignant “commentary regarding the people from and about whom it was made” (Jacobson 2002:2). Hammons “reinterprets major social and political issues with a nod toward personal interests and concerns” (Klayman 1998:24).

The power of hair is in his work reveals it as a symbol of a people and an individual feature that each person shares and rather than propounding a binary distinction between masculine and feminine hairstyles, Hammons’s hair pieces often appear androgynous and disassociate hairstyle from its intrinsic associations with being “a feminine pastime” (Klayman 1998:18). His sculptures trouble what otherwise should be a natural human feature, with question of is this substance animal, vegetable, or mineral?

In Rocky, hair sprouts from a stone; Bag Lady in Flight offers hair on paper bags. In another series of work, Hammons creates plant-like forms with puffs of hair in place of cotton awaiting harvest, not only troubling the natural origin of black hair, but also recalling the cotton industry as the primary financial justification for American slavery. Hammons refuses a simple understanding of black hair in his art. Hair is never a straightforward object of fashion, but a political tool, object of oppression, and signifier of difference. (Klayman 1998: 23) Hammons exploits the fears of a predominantly white society along with the natural, unprocessed texture of black hair to associate it with non-human materials. His hair pieces reveal this dichotomy and it is made even more apparent in Untitled, a massive, organic, almost threatening, outrageously exaggerated sculpture, through which Hammons magnifies a mass of dreadlocks to a heroic and ridiculous stature, so that it only vaguely references a human feature, and instead takes on characteristics of a simpler, decidedly creepy life form. The sprawling piece is composed of black dreadlocks signals a grasp of the power in what is traditionally held in low esteem and through it describes the disconcerting implications of “bringing noble and lofty forms down in value, discarded, overlooked, and undervalued worthy of consideration”

(Klayman 1998:24). Untitled celebrates the qualities of black hair, and plays on the fears of dreadlocks as dirty, unwashed, and unkempt, emphasized by their detachment from the human head.

The connotations of dreadlocks as a hairstyle, already intended to threaten the white viewer with a denial of Western aesthetics and politics (Mercer 1994), here becomes all the more imposing. Among other things, dreadlocks symbolize rejection of white oppression (hooks 1992, Mercer 1994); disembodied and joined together, they create a new life form with an inner strength and solidarity that speaks of an irrepressible power. The brilliance of this piece rests in the fact that it is simultaneously physically imposing and Hammons is able to join several of hair’s associations in this one remarkable sculpture.

Hammons art in general “emphasizes the differences between the races” and black anger over “the situation of African-Americans” (Sandler 1990:258). While refusing racist stereotypical perceptions, Hammons rejects the conditions of black integration into white American society and his work is therefore a compassionate, funny, and angry composition of metaphors for “the poverty and racism experienced by ghetto dwellers” (Sandler 1990:258).

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