Art Inspired by Race, Riots and Rap

Terence Hammonds’s sub-cultural view
By Saad Ghosn

In his first year of college, Terence Hammonds was asked to do a cultural portrait of himself; he did not know what to do. The assignment, however, stayed with him and raised many questions in his mind about cultural identity and belonging, questions that have since then determined the content and direction of his art.
Hammonds, an African-American artist born and raised in Over-the-Rhine, always drew as a child. Recognizing his artistic inclinations, his mother enrolled him in the School for the Creative and Performing Arts. There he met two teachers who greatly influenced him. Kathleen Carothers, a drama teacher, regularly took him to the museum, asking him each time to write a paper on an art piece of his choosing, triggering early on his critical thinking about visual images. John Brengelman, an English teacher and musician, gave him records and books, introducing him to underground art and the subculture of music.
Throughout school, Hammonds got good exposure to various art media and developed skills in many of them. He was then obsessed with John Lennon and many times drew the Dakota Hotel where Lennon died. Hammonds also painted homeless people and alcoholics in his neighborhood, connecting to city life and its social ills.
After graduating from high school, Hammonds received a full scholarship to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston at Tufts University, where he later earned a bachelor of fine arts degree. His college years helped him refine his visual language; they also made him think culturally about the world and where he fits.
Rap music was very popular at the time and somewhat synonymous with black urban youth; Hammonds listened to it all the time. He did a series of silkscreen prints, titled Temporary Tattoos, representing tattoos of famous rap stars; the prints could be temporarily transferred onto someone’s skin. It was also his take on the idea of original and real, a tenet of the hip hop culture. Along the same line, he made fancy-looking, fake Certificates of Provenance for commonly used slang terms, pointing to ownership.
“I was very interested in what mainstream culture thought of differing subcultures, of their relation to race and class in history,” he says.
Questioning the fixed and framed identity one might give a diverse subculture, in this case associating rap music to black race, Hammonds covered his studio floor with subway tiles on which he printed the first reproduced image of a break dancer. By not cleaning the screen between printings, the images became intentionally blurred. They served as his commentary on the change the hip hop movement underwent, progressing from the Bronx in New York City to other parts of the United States and also on the various multiethnic influences it incorporated.
In his last year of college Hammonds did a large installation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It consisted of silhouettes of rap dancers and images of the first 250 rap artists to record music, all silkscreened on a wall paper patterned after the plantation in Gone With the Wind. Exhibited at the same time, displayed in a broken antique cabinet, were old Haviland Limoges plates on which he printed images of the first break dancers. The cabinet had a broken leg, propped up by first-edition books from the Civil Rights Movement, books of slave songs containing coded messages, books by Leroy Jones and Langston Hughes. It was his reference to the origin of hip hop culture, fed at its base by the cultural history of the African-American people, also an allusion to it being a precious, yet poorly handled, gift.
Returning to Cincinnati after six years in Boston, Hammonds continued to examine in his art the identity and history of subcultures in the United States, the role of protest and rebellion in the Civil Rights Movement and its importance for freedom and democracy.
“I am reaping the benefit of the Civil Rights Movement, of the fight so many undertook, at the expense of their own lives, to allow each of us freedom in this country,” he says. “I went to an Ivy League school with full scholarship just based on merit; I can freely express myself. … This was unheard of 50 years ago for African Americans.”
Quiet Riot, his first show in Cincinnati, was based on a real story that followed the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Fearing riots, the mayor of Boston invited all residents to protest King’s assassination and mourn together by watching a concert by James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” on TV. Boston remained riot-free, with popular music a factor.
In his show, Hammonds played a video of the concert on a 1960-era TV. He printed images of the riots that happened in Cincinnati and all over America on a set of Russel Wright dinner plates called “American Modern” and displayed two miniature dance floors, each 4’x4’, covered with silkscreened images of riots.
Further illustrating the Civil Rights Movement and its influence on American life, Hammonds later did four additional dance floors. One of them, Get Up on the Down Stroke, is titled after a line from a folk song. It consists of a wood board decorated with graphite drawings and prints of images from the ’60s and ’70s counter-cultural movements, riots, draft-card burnings, scenes from the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont and from the Kent State massacre.
“My images meant to evoke an era now gone, a time when youth was idealistic, not afraid to change the world,” he says. “The dance floors (are) spaces where cultures are exchanged.”
In his work, Hammonds will persevere, addressing subcultures, protest and authority. He views his art as monuments celebrating the activist movements of the past and hopefully the present.
“I want my artwork to remind of a time when people fought for the better good of the entire humanity,” he says. “I want the youth to look back, realize that history existed and that it can be reinvented. Raising me, my mother always stressed the duty to give to society, to contribute positively to life. It is a lesson I will never forget.”