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Artwork Spotlight: David Hammons’s 1970 'Black First, American Second'

Black First, American Second (1970) is an example of David Hammons’s iconic series of body prints, primarily utilizing his own body, which he began in the late 1960s in Los Angeles. To make these incendiary self-portraits, Hammons would cover himself in grease and press his torso, limbs, and face against sheets of paper before covering the impression with a layer of dusted pigment. 

The mixed-media and performance artist has often refuted that individual works have any specific meaning or intent, but there’s no question that Hammons’s body of work has been shaped by the images and issues of racial inequality, poverty, and mainstream culture. This work, in which two figures in profile are covered by a black and white American flag, was made during the height of Black Power and the Black Arts Movement, as well as the California Funk Art Movement, and is exemplary of Hammons’s continued preoccupation with the complicated experience of black life in the United States.

  • David Hammons making body prints, Slauson Avenue studio, 1974. Photograph by Bruce W. Talamon. Courtesy Tilton Gallery, New York

The title, Black First, American Second, immediately declares the politically-conscious nature of this work. Black First, American Second reflects for African Americans the inescapability of being discriminated against as Black before being included equally as Americans in the public imagination. By juxtaposing the image of the black body with his highly graphic rendering of the American Flag, Hammons creates an incisive visual metaphor for what it means to be ‘black first’ in the United States. The image of the American Flag has a history of being appropriated by many artists, most notably by Pop artist Jasper Johns in his 1954 Flag, and with more political motivation by artists like Betye Saar, Ray Lewis, Faith Ringgold and Hammons who have used the flag in their work as an ironic symbol of the discrepancy between the promises of the US Constitution and the realities of a disenfranchised and disempowered black citizenry.

Yet the combination of the figures' expressions, one peacefully in repose, the other crying out, and the symbolism of the American Flag, also adds a level of ambiguity to the work’s interpretation. Are Hammons’s figures cloaked in the flag, wearing it like a protective shroud, or is it smothering them, marginalizing the figures’ position in the artwork by concealing them?

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