Hammons has made a number of works for the street, famously selling snowballs, for example, in downtown Manhattan after a blizzard. For this work he used a stencil to spray-paint the face of Nelson Mandela on buildings and billboards. Mandela, later the president of South Africa, was then nearing the end of a twenty-seven-year prison sentence for fighting the country’s political system of apartheid. The torn billboard paper on which this image appears reflects the work’s reproducibility and portability. Inspired by Mandela, activists in Palestine, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere also painted him as the symbol of their struggle for freedom.
Gallery label from "Collection:1940s—1970s", 2019
David Hammons's assemblages, installations, and performances address issues relevant to African-American and African culture, identity, and experience. Using unconventional, often found materials, he has created projects that include pyramids of human hair collected from the floors of Harlem barbershops and snowballs that he sells on the sidewalk. His drawings, made from Harlem dirt bounced off a basketball onto paper, could conceptually be termed "prints." Hammon's statement from the 1960s, "I feel it my moral obligation as a black artist to try to graphically document what I feel socially," continues to illuminate his work. An artist who came of age during the height of the civil rights and black nationalist movements, Hammons established his reputation during this period with his series of some five hundred politically charged body prints. Here the artist's body, sometimes clothed, sometimes naked, was smeared with grease and functioned as a printing plate when he pressed himself against a sheet of paper. He then sprinkled dry pigments onto the greasy markings, sometimes adding other imagery in screenprint. Through this reconceptualization of printmaking, a medium steeped in tradition, the artist created his own representations of the black male body. Other printed works he has made over the years have been equally atypical. With his stencil Free Nelson Mandela, Hammons once again utilized a printmaking technique in a kind of performance addressing social and political concerns. Spray-painted on both indoor and outdoor sites while Mandela was still in prison after more than twenty years, the stencil was then sprayed on torn billboard papers to create this print. Its subject is a concrete signifier of what was denied by authorities, but was indeed true for many black South Africans-that the spirit of Mandela remained and that his cause could not be extinguished.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Jennifer Roberts, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 212.