Episode #78: Touching Roots: Stephen Hamilton
This past Friday, November 11th, marked the release of the fifth segment out of seven of our new interview series, Touching Roots - an exploratory investigation of the exhibition by the same name currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston - Touching Roots; Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas. In this episode, we had the pleasure of meeting Boston-based artist and arts educator Stephen Hamilton.
[Pictured left: Dashawn Borden as Sundiata Keita, 2018 - mixed media, acrylic, natural dyes, and pigments, and hand-woven, hand-dyed cloth. Courtesy of the artist. © Stephen Hamilton.]
Stephen is a mixed media artist and painter, who uses visual language in his works as an avenue for storytelling.
In his interview with us, Stephen shared with us his passion for mythology and cultural history as a young student, and how his exploration into African folklore and oral history informed his work, then and today. His paintings are packed with symbolism and references to African history and myth.
The painting in Touching Roots (shown above, titled Dashawn Borden as Sundiata Keita, is a piece from a series titled The Founders Project. In this series, Hamilton uses the images of Boston Public High School Students and depicts them as legendary founders of the West and West-Central African ethnic groups, that are part of the ancestral base for the African diaspora.
Hamilton wrote a companion text to accompany this series of work, which can be viewed here, which shares the stories that the paintings draw symbolism from. The following is an excerpt from the preface:
"The Founders Project comes out of a desire to address the persistent lack of Pre-Colonial African Narratives in mainstream educational discourse and create empowering visual representations of Boston’s Black Youth [...]
During the transatlantic slave trade, millions of people were forcibly taken from their homelands all over West and West-Central Africa. Each of these people brought with them their own stories as well as centuries of rich and complex traditions from their ancestral homelands. The founder’s Project details the foundation myths of nine of the dozens of ethnic groups ancestral to millions of Black people across the Americas."
In addition to The Founders Project, Stephen is a prolific writer and artist across many mediums.
He is the author of laro: Indigo and the Power of Women in Yorubaland, an essay which first explores the technical processes of indigo-dyeing in Yorubaland, and then "demonstrates how indigo dyers have played crucial roles in Yoruba history and are often an integral part of women's histories in Africa's pre-colonial and colonial eras." This text can be read here.
He has also published Blackness Emerges From The Waters: Mini Syllabus, which is a smaller version of a larger syllabus that explores "Black color symbolism concerning skin color, art, material culture and the natural world, as well as how this relates to conceptions of beauty, ugliness, fertility, birth, death, prestige, accumulation, endlessness, and danger in Yoruba, Mende, Kongo and Igbo aesthetics and cosmologies." This mini syllabus can be accessed here in two parts.
This interview was very interesting for us, and we know it will be for you too! Don't forget to tune in to the full length episode on Spotify or Apple Podcasts, and check out Stephen's work in the MFA.
Below is a description from the Touching Roots landing page on the MFA Boston website.
"Africa is at once a point of origin and a myriad of associations—real and imagined—for many Black artists working in the Americas. In the 20th century, some artists self-consciously responded to writer and philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke’s call to engage with “those ancestral arts.” Others continued to practice African artistic traditions passed down through generations.This exhibition traces narratives of Blackness across the Atlantic world by bringing together work from artists who absorbed and reinterpreted African artistic practices, sacred customs, and cultural expressions. The artworks honor ancestral spirits and Black legacies through painting, sculpture, textiles, and dance. Artists from throughout the Americas are represented—with a special focus on those from or working in New England, like Allan Rohan Crite, Napoleon Jones-Henderson, Ifé Franklin, Bryan McFarlane, Karen Hampton, and Stephen Hamilton. Highlights from the collection include Ubi Girl from Tai Region (1972) by Loïs Mailou Jones, African Woman (about 1933) by James Richmond Barthé, Untitled (1943) by Wifredo Lam, and George Jackson (1971) by Kofi Bailey.Visitors can explore how shared cultural heritages created connections that formed the basis of communities, highlighting the importance of Africa’s presence in the Americas. By turning their gaze inward and toward Africa, Black artists grounded their artistic expressions and infused strength and insight into their work.
This exhibition accompanies “Stories Artists Tell: Art of the Americas, the 20th Century,” a suite of galleries spanning place and time, and exploring different themes surrounding 20th-century art from the Americas."
This exhibition is included in General Admission. The Museum of Fine Arts Boston has a range of discounts for General Admission tickets, including discounted admission passes you can reserve in advance through your local library. Check out the ticketing page at mfa.org here for more information.