Art critic and author Antwaun Sargent on the correlation between the hoodie and the identity, body and construct of the Black male in society, art and popular culture, in an essay specially commissioned for The Hoodie by Het Nieuwe Instituut.
The arrival of the hoodie in contemporary art is a reflection of the ways the garment thrown over the head of a Black male is a political event as much as it is a sartorial one. It has cost him his life. Perhaps he’s hiding in plain sight, protecting his own innocence with a gesture of discretion, maybe he’s undoing expectations, taking proper ownership over the myths of his appearance. It could be a way for him to pour himself into himself and disappear as a way to appear whole again. This is to say nothing of his right to display righteous anger, assert his anxiety, voicelessness, shield his beauty, amid perceptions of his imagined criminality and outright misrepresentation. Fashion, if it is to mean anything, must be embodied.
The play with aesthetic norms at the root of youthful style, which has generally been reworked in order to embrace or reject previous generations’ ideas of self-presentation and social order, is central to our understanding of the hoodie. Youth style thrives on what is forbidden, outré. The response to contemporary Black youths wearing hoodies to push the limits of dress into new territory that allows for both political and playful expression, in many ways follows the historic demonization of Black male aesthetic codes, from the zoot suit to durags and sagging pants. Mass culture’s ability to make a hoodie the container of racial fantasies, shows that each generation finds a garment to fit its bigotry. The hoodie is the latest representation of how an honest expression of stylishness, as a site to signify self-definition and group identity, is made into a target. It is a reminder that Black style inventions, even when they are appropriated into high fashion, as general signifiers of cool, or transmuted across class and racial lines, through Black music, into white mainstream aesthetics, will still carry no relief for the Black body from the consequences of stereotype and oppression. The hoodie is an emblem of the fault lines of our collective consciousness, a modern day scarlet letter that has given license to all those searching for signs to bestow public punishment upon Black youths in a series of glances, preemptive police searches and violent attacks.
In 1993, the conceptual artist David Hammons captured these core tensions of the garment with In the Hood. A small, simple sculpture of a torn-off dark athletic sweatshirt hood with a thin wire inserted in the rim. Installed, I have seen it mounted on a wall or hung floating hauntingly in the air, a bit above human height, with the suggestion of disembodiment and transcendence, both physically and psychically.
As Anthony Huberman notes, “David Hammons is a spirit catcher. He walks the streets the way an improviser searches for notes, looking for those places and objects where dormant spirits go to hide, and empowers them again.”
Considering Hammons’ interest in capturing and conjuring Black spirits, his use of the hoodie can be understood as a totem, a way for him to mark, remember and cajole the presence of a lynched body or an African mask back into existence, in order to give it the space for consideration, and deserving acknowledgment. It’s his way of emancipating them in a world lit with little freedom. His creation, a way for Hammons to continue to toy with a highly charged symbol of Black life, whose utilitarian use was made stylish in the streets of Black communities, exposing the cost of Black expression.
In titling the work, Hammons chose to play on an African American colloquialism for “neighbourhood,” which suggests the work is topographic: a mapping of the landscapes of class, race and fashion at the intersections of self-expression, desire and violence. The hoodie’s connection to communal identity and mourning is further made plain when considering that the young Black teen, Trayvon Martin, was wearing a hoodie when he was killed by George Zimmerman, a white neighborhood watch volunteer, in 2012. When Zimmerman, identified Martin to the police, he called him a “suspicious guy” because he was wearing “a dark hoodie.” It was the white imagination running wild on the body of a young Black masculine body. This paradox, as the curator Thelma Golden argued in her 1993 essay, My Brother, has led Black men to “suffer not just overrepresentation, but oversimplification, demonization, and (at times), utter incomprehension.” She explains:
“One of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century is the African-American male—“invented” because Black masculinity represents an amalgam of fears and projections in the American psyche which rarely conveys or contains the trope of the truth about the Black male’s existence.”
Devan Shimoyama’s series of sculptures Shroud I and II (2017) and February II (2019) seeks to both interrogate the mainstream stereotyping of Blackness and the toxic masculine performance within the Black community that is symbolized through the hoodie. Shimoyama’s February II (2019), a cotton hoodie decorated with silk flowers, sequins, and glitter, made in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, considers the projection of Black masculine performance onto the hoodie through a “queering” that explores anti-Black violence, grief and remembrance. Shimoyama’s hand turns the hoodie, a symbol of violence, into a sanctuary for identity. Marking the hoodie with “a thin veil of sparkle” as Shimoyama put it, he establishes a fashionable fluidity that attracts the gaze to see the hoodie—and its wearer—reimagined as something not to be feared but to be embraced, countering the racial antagonism and hyper-masculinism associated with the garment and Black males. It creates space for the Black male body to embody the hoodie in ways that foregrounds his subjectivity and the consideration of nuanced identity achieved through experimenting with style that challenges the cultural and political limitations imposed on dress. The work also alludes to the memorials erected on sites of tragedy in urban communities as homages to those lost and recall how the hoodie Martin was wearing at the time of his death became a symbol of his innocence. Like Hammons’ sculpture, it also retains a spiritual quality: when displayed, February II, titled after the month Martin was born, is laid out as if it is Christ on the cross, an act of benediction, rebirth.
Adrian Piper’s Imagine (Trayvon Martin) made a year after his death, in 2013, is a picture of Martin in a hoodie, that was circulated widely in the media, caught gazing with boyish innocence through the crosshairs of a sniper rifle. The image ruptures the narrative of Martin’s death, exposing that in the mainstream consciousness a Black boy in a hoodie becomes a space to act out racial resentment and to continue, what the artist Hank Willis Thomas considers the historic “branding” of the Black male body. Thomas’ early 2000s series, Branded, explores the ways in which perceptions of the Black male have largely been communicated and normalized through corporate commercial advertisement, sport, and news media. Thomas’s Scarred Chest (2003), a closely cropped photograph of a Black male’s chest embossed with multiple swoosh that recall the Nike logo and the way Black bodies were marked as property during chattel slavery, calls out mass culture’s justifying its desires for and expectations of the Black male through repeated representations: he is the famed sports figure, rapper or menacing criminal.
The photographer John Edmonds’s Hoods (2016), further exposes how Black male identity is constructed into stereotypical tropes that come to be embodied in certain professions, class status, and garments. But central to Edmonds’ five portraits of an anonymous hooded figure standing against various backdrops, is how the artist uses the hoodie to withhold the possibility of knowing the identity of the figure in the hood. The power of the images lies in the way they lack specificity: we don’t know who we are looking at and why. So, we assume. Authorship plays a role and we proffer because Edmonds is Black, the figures must be too. But are they? The image disorientation is heightened in the ways Edmonds employs the commercial language of a product shot and the politics of assumptions that are inherent in how our culture looks at Black men with suspicion. Should we desire to buy the hoodie on display or should we fear what is concealed? The work magnifies the viewers experience and beliefs as it relates to the commodification and fetishization of the Black male body in popular culture. Each image is a kind of mirror that makes a perceptive viewer face themselves and their judgements and privileges. The Black male in a hoodie, seen through Edmonds’ eyes, is a reflection of invisibility, mistaken identity, a portrait that should make you question the irrational, diminishing effects of what is perceived and what is really seen.
Antwaun Sargent is an art critic and writer who has contributed to The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vice and more, as well as essays to multiple museum publications. His first book, The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion (Aperture) was published in 2019.