A look at David Hammon’s Injustice Case

Janet Gao
3 min readMar 8, 2022


David Hammons, Injustice Case, 1970

To give a better idea of the historical framework from which this piece emerged, Hammons created Injustice Case in response to the Bobby Seale Trial. Essentially, Chicago 8 defender and Black Panther leader Bobby Seale was gagged and chained to his chair during his trial in full view of the jury and charged with conspiracy for the intent of causing riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Many wondered if he received a fair trial as dictated by the Sixth Amendment of the Bill of Rights as he rattled his chains and tried to speak through the gag.

Hammons had stated, “…I feel it my moral obligation as a black artist to try to graphically document what I feel socially.” David Hammons himself is black, and black bodies are rendered voiceless and powerless in the American social system.

His piece responds with the flattening of the 3 dimensional body. The idea of a flattening person is defined in terms of race and the set of associations and characteristics that mark them socially. One body can be substituted for another in the way they are treated in the system.

This artwork can be associated with performance and process art, though it does not belong to a single movement. It is a body print; the creation process involved the artist covering himself and the chair in margarine and violently slamming the body into paper. Synthetic butter margarine was used for its cheap, symbolic associations, and the print ultimately shows the outline, indexical of his body.

Formally, the foreground and background contribute to the tension and questions of: is the body behind the flag showing what is behind the facade of American democracy or behind the white American dream? Or is the body in front of the flag, showing that African Americans are also part of the American system and should be publicly acknowledged, rather than hidden away? Upon a closer look, it appears as though bars extend through the image, reminiscent of jail bars and shedding light upon the treatment of black bodies through the justice system.

Another important aspect to note is the idea of surface and the deflation of subjectivity inherent in formal flatness. In this case, we see the formal and contextual elements of violent flatness that points at identity being skin-deep. In contrast with newspaper drawings of Bobby Seale as a bound dangerous criminal, Hammons depiction is that of a vulnerable victim, indexical of reoccurring effects of the system.

Every time I see this artwork, I am mesmerized by its formal elements; its connotation of history, its extended temporality, the yellowing of the flag, and white negative space vs. grey/black figure; and how it addresses the issue of identity and argues that African Americans are hidden behind American society and that they ought to be brought to the forefront to be a part of it.