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David Hammons, Hair Relaxer

H

air Relaxer is an outstanding example of David Hammons’s

describes both his pride and his subsequent shame at the results: “How

artistry. Like many of his best works it is at once philosophical

ridiculous I was! Stupid enough to stand there simply lost in admiration of

and humorous; deep and light-hearted; made from a combination

my hair now looking “white,” reflected in the mirror… I vowed that I’d never

of cast-off materials and high-minded principles; simultaneously a

again be without a conk, and I never was for many years. This was my first

reflection of African American experience and a response to European

really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain,

American Modern Art.

literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined the multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed

As so often in Hammons’s art, the title here is a pun; in the present

into believing that the black people are “inferior” — and white people

work it refers to the practice among African Americans of “relaxing”

“superior” — that they will violate and mutilate their God-given bodies to

or straightening their hair. The distinctive features of African hair have

try to look “pretty” by white standards.” (Malcolm X, The Autobiography of

long been a source and a symbol of identity, pride and shame for African

Malcolm X, New York, 1965, p. 64)

Americans, and Hammons has often used hair in his works as a means of provoking thought about these issues. But perhaps no other piece by the

It is easy to see from Malcolm X’s description why African American hair

artist does so on such a large scale or in such a bold way.

could be such a meaningful emblem of power and identity. Yet the hair in Hair Relaxer is relaxing in a different way: unstraightened, still retaining its

To straighten African hair requires the application of lye or other alkaloid

natural kinkiness, it is lying at ease on an old-fashioned divan. Hammons’s

chemicals, which breaks down the natural proteins in the hair, allowing

works often ask or require their audience to change its point of view,

it to uncurl and lie flat. As every reader of The Autobiography of Malcolm

and that is the case here too. African American hair in this work is not a

X knows, this is an extremely painful, and even potentially dangerous,

contested or anxious symbol of personal or political self-definition. It is,

process because the lye burns the scalp and skin. In Malcolm X’s

rather, at peace, in repose.

blisteringly powerful account, both the person performing the “conk” and the one receiving it have to wear rubber aprons and gloves, and apply

With sly humor, Hammons also evokes a famous tradition in the

thick layers of petroleum jelly to any areas of skin — such as the ears,

representation of female beauty in European art. The sofa in Hammons’s

forehead, and the back of the neck — that the lye might touch. Still, the pain

work is of a type known as a Recamier, because of the presence of a divan

is so great it makes Malcolm X howl and his knees tremble. He movingly

of similar design in Jacques-Louis David’s celebrated portrait of Madame

Fig 1 Jacques-Louis David, Madame Juliette Récamier (1800)

CB_pp54-55_V3.indd 54

Fig 2 Edouard Manet, Olympia (1863)

29-09-10 10.55

Carte Blanche, Curated by Philippe Segalot  

Auction 450 Park Avenue New York, NY 8 November 2010 6pm EST

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