Allison Janae Hamilton’s Spirit Sources

Allison Janae Hamilton’s Spirit Sources

Indoors, for Allison Janae Hamilton, is always a kind of compromise. She grew up in Florida — first in Miami, attuned to the ocean and the Everglades, then in Tallahassee, with its exuberant tree cover, and where she enjoys kayaking in the haunting cypress swamps. Childhood summers were spent in western Tennessee, returning for planting and picking time on her maternal family’s farm. Her multimedia art never strays far from her concern with the land, especially the Southern land, and its occupants, especially its black occupants.

“Landscape is this incredibly beautiful plane that we get to live on,” Ms. Hamilton said. “But it’s also a plane that has been wielded by those in power in a very violent way.”

Her work has an unabashed pastoral quality. Yet every rustic setting where she stages her photography, every clip and sound in her video works, every artifact in her installations — the fencing masks, the tambourines, the bundles of horsehair, the taxidermy alligators — is present for a reason. Her aim is to manifest history: that of her family, the black South, and by this method, the nation.

Ms. Hamilton, 34, is based in New York: She arrived here in 2006, fresh out of Florida State University (where her father, Leonard Hamilton, is the head basketball coach), and after a stint in fashion, began earning graduate degrees. Before receiving her M.F.A., from Columbia in 2017, she already had a Ph.D. in American Studies from New York University, where she studied with the photography scholar Deborah Willis and wrote a dissertation on the carnivalesque in black visual culture. In the summer, she goes upstate weekly to ride horses.

This year New York tightened its claim on her when she landed a spot in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s artist-in-residence program, a prestigious incubator of black talent, alongside fellow residents Sable Elyse Smith and Tschabalala Self. But even as her star rises in the art world, Ms. Hamilton is determined to invest in her soul base, the South, and eventually buy her own land. “There’s just more space,” she said. “And in order for me to think about these issues, it’s important for me to be there, and in the community.”

Recently, she explored the legacy of the turpentine industry that dominated the Southeast well into the 20th century, in which workers in backwoods camps, isolated and kept in debt by company scrip, tapped the pine trees for resins. Her research took her to abandoned camps in the forests of Florida and Georgia. “Pitch,” her first museum solo exhibition, currently at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Mass., through March, is titled for the resinous substance that shipbuilders used to make vessels watertight.

She installed a deconstructed pine forest in a gallery of the old mill complex, with locally sourced 12-foot trunks, imposing and straight, set in twos and threes. The pine fragrance drifts through the gallery, along with the choral track, insistent and incantatory, of a video installation in a small walk-in room. In it Ms. Hamilton, her face concealed by a beaked mask, rides a brown horse. Insects hover across swamp waters. An African-American congregation worships in a country church.

Elsewhere, plywood panels lean against walls, roughly painted in the manner of Southern yard art, with splotches, stars or lettering. Photographs place their subjects in vistas of forests, fields, cabins, dressed in vintage apparel. One is Ms. Hamilton’s mother, masked and holding a pheasant. In another room, two taxidermy alligators bite their own tails, in the classic ouroboros motif; a silent row of fencing masks looks on, some adorned in feathers or beads, while spears decorated with horsehair line the wall.

It makes for a visual language that both edges toward Southern Gothic and sets itself apart, with reminders of how different fates unfold in the same landscape, shaped by ancestral custom but also by stark hierarchies of race and class. The mystic references come from hoodoo, the knowledge of rural black healers, for whom hunting or cultivating are inextricably spiritual and economic. The pine trees express the beauty of a grove, but also the exploitation of land and labor.

“It’s always interesting when an artist builds a vocabulary, a set of tools, and is able to skillfully utilize it,” said Larry Ossei-Mensah, who curated “Pitch” with Susan Cross and who is now senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Ms. Hamilton’s method, he said, is so original that he struggles to identify exact precursors. “There’s a very clear line of sight,” he added. “She has a clear sense of direction, which I think is refreshing.”

Hallie Ringle, the curator of contemporary art at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama, and until recently assistant curator at the Studio Museum, said Ms. Hamilton’s practice reminded her of the Chicago-based painter Kerry James Marshall. “Maybe it’s the richness of the composition, or the colors that she’s tapping into,” said Ms. Ringle, who selected Ms. Hamilton for “Fictions,” the Studio Museum’s showcase exhibition last year. It’s an intriguing connection: the Chicago painter and the rural-South mixed-media artist, yet both invested in the spirit material of African-American life. “Her installations are super smart,” Ms. Ringle said. “They’re really layered, and they unfold almost as paintings.”

In “Fictions,” Ms. Hamilton showed “Foresta,” a walk-in installation that paired her signature objects — the masks, the taxidermy forms — with shimmering footage of swamp waters. The installation in “Pitch” is both similar and different. “I repeat some footage,” she said. “I figure if you can have motifs that repeat in drawings or painting or objects, why can’t video have that too? I like having a marker.”

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Hamilton’s studio in the Studio Museum’s temporary work space in Harlem, where it has taken up quarters during construction of its new building, was tidily arrayed with her tools. Alligator heads, agape and toothy, rested on a shelving unit beside antlers and pelts. Women in her family have all hunted, but Ms. Hamilton only shoots targets. “I’m not a good enough shot to give a clean death,” she said. Her alligator skins come from friends who hunt for meat. “I try to get things sustainably that way.”

The artist, who favors a vintage-casual look, from jeans and boots to fitted jackets and frills, fabricates the costumes that her portraiture subjects wear as she art-directs them in the woods. Next to the sewing machine in the studio were confections-in-progress like a fur collar mounted with cloth roses. With her Mass MoCA exhibition up — as well as an outdoor sculpture at Storm King, part of a collective show on climate change — she is back in research mode, starting the process toward her residency exhibition in the spring.

On her mind are hurricanes. This month, Ms. Hamilton watched from afar as Hurricane Michael walloped the north Florida coast and her home city. “Every hurricane season you feel more helpless being away,” she said. Her attunement to the sting of these storms is partly a rural inheritance: “My grandmother can tell you everything about climate change,” she said. But now her research takes her into the history of hurricanes — from the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 to this year’s Florence and Michael — and their impact on black communities.

She knows that after the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928, which appears in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” at least 1,600 black migrant laborers were buried in mass graves — archaeologists suspect many more. Katrina, a shaping event for society and politics today, had precedents. “My concern is which communities are more vulnerable,” Ms. Hamilton said. “Which ones are given the least care, which ones are always on the wrong side of the levee; and how that relates to the history of power, and of the country.”

Ms. Hamilton’s sculpture at Storm King Art Center, through Nov. 11, involves stacks of white-painted tambourines, a quintessential storytelling instrument; its title, “The peo-ple cried mer-cy in the storm,” quotes “Florida Storm,” a hymn by Judge Jackson that responded to another devastating hurricane, of 1926. Music, sacred and secular, has participated through history in the self-narration of African-Americans, and their resilience through trauma. In her forthcoming works, Ms. Hamilton envisions adding original sound works into ever more immersive environments.

Despite the gravity, she feels her art growing less heavy as her research advances. “I feel interested in going lighter with color, more ethereal, playing up the water theme,” she said. Even in trauma, after all, the land is beautiful. “So I want you to feel that. The lightness and beauty, but wait a minute — there’s something amiss, something that’s not quite right.”

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