David Hammons/ Obeah Man


The art of David Hammons usually beckons to me from wherever it is perched within a group show. How can someone who uses such a myriad of methods and media have a voice so distinct amid the ambitious cacophony of contemporary art? It is the obeah in the thing – the spirit of the miraculous and the rebellious. It is the profundity revealed in the quotidian that allows his voice to rise above the rest.


Obeah is black magic some say, to color it sinister. I say Black Magic to recognize its healing powers, the centuries of protection and fortification that it offered a people forcibly scattered across the Americas. Obeah is the Black Magic of the enslaved Africans, made with bits and pieces of their new environment and consecrated with intention. Obeah is the inevitability in Boukman’s prophecy of liberation. Obeah is the seal of the Ashanti Kingdom ordained by the immovable sword of Okomfo Anokye. It is the sorcery in the dreadlocks of the Mau Mau warriors. It is the blue in mal yeux [1] blue.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Hammons’ obeah, five decades of it currently on view at Mnuchin Gallery, encapsulates the streets of pre-gentrified Harlem. It echoes barbershops, pricey trainers and hoop dreams. Hammons employs chicken bones and grease to make fine art. He adroitly reshapes the detritus of hood life into his own interpretation of reality. A rock is transformed into a human head with neatly etched lines suggesting a recent visit to the barbershop. “Too obvious,” [2] Hammons proclaims, as cowry shells spill out of the fat, pink pig’s exploding guts. This small catastrophe – the unavoidable outcome of ill-begotten profit – he tosses casually at his viewers. He keeps us awake.

Empty liquor bottles roll into a cycle of poverty. The African drum is desecrated by a housecat. Standing room only. The sneaky cat finds a third way. Caught in chicken wire and disintegrating feathers, the debris of dreams caged in metal before attainment, a soaring bird is in fact a trapped basketball. Hammons’ keeps improbable hoop dreams in check.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

He flings a lilac curse at an excess of floor-length fur. He mocks the narcissistic impulse triggered by a massive, ornate mirror by roughly covering it with cheap galvanize[3]. The hilarity of snowballs for sale. One more, made of wax or glass. Here, my dear, for the insatiable spoiled. Collect one. Purchase one. Own a piece. The obeah man has put a spell on the 1% and they love him for it.

369A0890-2 copy

An ancient, Kongo power-figure dressed down in the emergency orange of imprisonment is translated into contemporary-speak. Through appropriation of the title of the highly popularized account of a WASPy woman’s year in minimum-security prison, Hammons makes the plight of invisible millions relatable to an otherwise oblivious public. An age-old artifact is returned to play, wielding the sharp, double-edged sword of double entendre and cutting straight to the racist and classist core of mass incarceration.


Afro hair, kinky dreadlocks – black, brown, red and silver; shavings, personal and evocative cover stones, fan out on the floor and emanate along arched lines from a center that holds. A shocked dread, a dreadful mas[4], a multi-pronged protrusion that accuses and demands, and guards secret things. The feather of a black bird, used teabags, windings of colored thread, a tear-drop pearl… I found bodily adornments and remnants of daily life trapped amongst the startled hair, like the torn plastic bags that blossom from the otherwise bare trees along Malcolm X Blvd in winter. A communal head. A cumulative tale. Pure obeah.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Hammons holds up a kaleidoscopic mirror to us, so that we may see dazzling fragments of the now, as though we fell into another dimension and could finally see ourselves with a brilliant, grounded truth. This artist is smoother than one of the stones he has topped with kinky hair. He communicates with a visual language so succinct that each letter contains a universe. What more could he say?




[1] mal yeux, pronounced ‘maljo’ – evil eye warded off by a deep shade of blue

[2] “Too obvious” is in the collection of the Studio Museum of Harlem and not on view at Mnuchin Gallery.

[3] Galvanized metal

[4] mas references elaborate costuming in Trinidad and Tobago Carnival

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: