On view at MoMA PS1, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, comprises works by African American artists from an era rife with friction. During this time of fighting for civil and human rights, African American artists created works that would procure them a place the Los Angeles art community. The show covers a spectrum of issues faced by African American communities, referencing political, social and sexual issues of the day. In the work of two artists in particular, Senga Nengudi and David Hammons, the body becomes the prime creative outlet in relaying sexuality and issues of stereotypical African American behavior, while also offering a perspective that was not well-known in white-dominated art community of Los Angeles.
The sculptures of Senga Nengudi are often placed in corners and made of sand-filled, twisted nylon pantyhose that carry a substantial weight. Nengudi’s 2011 recreated nylon and sand piece, “Only Love Saves the Day”, rests in a corner of the room’s entrance, creating a visual embrace with its long extensions, reaching out to the incoming viewer. However, upon closer inspection, the contortions of the open-legged pantyhose, the breast-like sandbags and the sensual stretch of the fabric produce images of palpable sexuality, an aspect that may become off-putting to some viewers. The weight of the sand in the nylon creates the illusion of female curves, alluding to a long history of sexuality in the black female, while at the same time using the long extending limbs to take this derogatory notion and push it aside in order to welcome not only the viewer, but also a new age of comfort in one’s own body.
This body-as-art aspect extends into other media as well. David Hammons body prints, created by the artist smearing himself in either grease or margarine and pressing his body to later coat that impression with graphite, exemplifies a novel process that engages an intense physicality. Hammons’ “The Wine Leading the Wine” from 1969 depicts two figures in profile, one drinking from a paper bag, the other directly behind, leading the drinker, presumably to no moral ends. While this piece references a social issue (perhaps even stereotype) of African American males’ drinking problem, because of Hammons’ awareness of the social issue it also creates a dialogue for change.