We each had our own careers but our time together provided communal support when there was little support to be had outside of ourselves.
When the renowned painter Charles White, a Chicago native who came of age during the city’s Black Renaissance, began teaching at the Otis Art Institute in 1969, the way he integrated his art practice with his progressive politics found a receptive audience in a younger generation of artists. White became the first African American faculty member at the Otis Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design), where he challenged his students, including David Hammons and Suzanne Jackson, to be "thinking artists." He believed that artists should not separate themselves from the struggle—as he put it, "Art must be an integral part of the struggle. It must ally itself with the forces of liberation." 1
In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States was shaken by powerful social movements and demonstrations that formed the foundation of contemporary civil rights. California was no exception: in Los Angeles, protests against police brutality and rampant discrimination, such as the 1965 Watts Rebellion, and the 1967 anti-war march at Century City hotel (and its violent dispersal) were the backdrop to artists’ lives in the city. In some cases, this social atmosphere had a clear influence on their work and art practices.
Inspired by White's conviction that art could be a vehicle for social change, Jackson founded and ran Gallery 32 from 1968 to 1970 out of her studio at 672 North Lafayette Park Place, located around the corner from the Otis Art Institute and the Chouinard Art Institute. Jackson considered the gallery more of a gathering space than a business, and she often hosted discussions, poetry readings, fundraisers, and exhibitions that supported social causes. Hammons, Senga Nengudi, and John Outterbridge, along with other artists, would also gather there to eat and talk. As Jackson explained:
There were not set exhibitions. You never knew what was going to happen at Gallery 32. It was according to the ideas that came out of a lot of the discussions, that is, trying to decide, "Who is it? What are we? And what is our relevance to the community being black artists?" 2
Gallery 32 became one of the few art spaces in Los Angeles to show the work of emerging African American artists: Hammons first exhibited his body prints at Gallery 32; Emory Douglas had a solo show in 1969 to raise money for the LA chapter of Black Panther Party (at the time he was their Minister of Culture); and Gallery 32 hosted Sapphire Show: You've come a long way, baby—the first Los Angeles survey of black women artists—which featured the work of six artists including Jackson and Nengudi.
Hammons and Nengudi knew each other in Los Angeles, but it wasn't until 1972, when Nengudi was living in New York, that their friendship was solidified. Hammons was friends with Nengudi's cousin, and during the National Conference of Artists, she, Hammons, and a number of artists stayed at Nengudi's apartment. Once Nengudi returned to LA, Hammons offered to share his studio (a former dancehall) on Slauson Avenue with her. The studio became a place where artists came to collaborate on performance ideas and practice. This group of artists formed a loose collective in the early 1970s, under the name Studio Z. “Membership” was fluid, and the rotation of artists included Hammons and Nengudi as well as Maren Hassinger, Barbara McCullough, John Outterbridge, and many others.
Since we weren’t accepted by, particularly, the mainstream art world, we had to create our own world and be very supportive of our own processes and concepts. And so we just kind of developed this friendship-family situation because we shared similar ideas. And part of that came out of our interest with Sun Ra, the musician, who actually is from Chicago. And his idea of total theater, I guess you might say—music, dance— he would have videos in his presentations.
As part of Studio Z, Hammons participated in Nengudi's 1978 Ceremony for Freeway Fets performance underneath a freeway overpass on Pico Boulevard near the LA Convention Center. At the time, Nengudi was part of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program, which hired artists to complete public artworks, similar to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program of the 1940s. For Nengudi, her Ceremony was a christening of the public artwork created for this program:
I wanted it to be a culmination of what I was interested in at the time, which was performance, dance, ceremony and ritual. It was quite euphoric to harness this collaborative energy. The musicians were actually visual artists who knew how to play instruments and everyone there was part of Studio Z. I thought of the performance as a christening of the public artwork that I had installed under the freeway. Somehow, through ceremony, I wanted the work to be properly ‘blessed’. I dealt with my shyness by performing under a tarp and mask, which felt transcendent. It was an extension of being influenced by and interested in African traditions. An observer remarked how the performance seemed both African and Japanese in its aesthetics, without knowing how much I love both cultures. 3
The performance was supported by a CETA grant and sponsored by Brockman Gallery Productions and CalTrans. At the time, Jackson was serving as an artist-coordinator for Brockman Gallery's CETA funded program.
"'I Believe Deeply that the Best Kind of Art is Public': An Interview with Senga Nengudi," Frieze 198 (October 2018). ↩
In the late 1970s, there was a program that was put into place by the federal government, which was to employ unemployed artists. And in California, in Los Angeles, the liaison agency was Brockman Gallery. And Brockman Gallery was one of the few black galleries in Los Angeles. And although it was a black gallery, there were maybe about, let’s say 10 artists in the program, and it was a very diverse set of artists. And so each one of us was given the task to create a public artwork in a public space. And so I chose under the freeway on Pico Boulevard, and that’s just very close to the Los Angeles Convention Center. And the reason I chose that was because that area itself was very diverse. The first peoples, Native Americans were there. Many of them had lived on the res, and as they were incorporating themselves into the community, that was where they would go. There was a lot of support there. Latinos, Asian-Americans, as well as immigrants from Vietnam. It was just really quite rich. And so I really wanted to have that be the place that I would have it, and it was very—I don’t know, in a sense, even though it was cement, the ground was dirt, and now I went back to that space, and it’s all cemented over. But at that point, it reminded me of Africa. It had little, tiny palm trees, and it was a lot of dirt, and it had the columns, which were very powerful. And there were—there was the energy of humans there. Because of the way this area was structured, there was like a shelf between the freeway itself and just underneath the freeway. And so a lot of homeless people would live there because they were protected, and it was very—almost ancient way of survival.
You know, where I’m from now, there were cliff dwellings, Native American cliff dwellings, because when you’re up above stuff, you’re protected from what’s going on. So it’s a very safe place in a sense, and they were there, you know, at night, and there were little fire—remnants of fires where they kept themselves warm. So there was an energy already infused in that particular area. And so that’s where I chose to have it. And I called upon my brothers and sisters and told them that I wanted to do this piece under the freeway because it was actually a public art piece. But the Freeway Fets was a ceremony. It was an opening up; it was a christening of the piece that I did in that area.