Arts, On Campus

Artist Stephen Hamilton Shares West-African Traditions and Textiles

One of the art studios in Devlin Hall was packed Thursday afternoon as Boston College students and faculty gathered to attend a lecture from Stephen Hamilton, a mixed-media artist presenting his work that features traditional West African textiles. 

Attendees learned about South Nigerian weaving and dyeing techniques, felt samples of the handwoven fabrics, and inquired into Hamilton’s creative process. Hamilton also discussed the nine months he spent in Africa, mainly in southern Nigeria, learning these arts. 

Hamilton described a selection of his works while sharing their personal and cultural significance. The presentation then moved on to an audience Q&A session facilitated by Greer Muldowney, assistant professor of the practice of photography at BC, and Kyrah Malika Daniels, assistant professor of art history. 

Hamilton’s lecture was the last event of the Currents lecture series for the semester. Currents invites contemporary artists to share their work with students and faculty of BC.

In addition to being a mixed-media artist, Hamilton is a researcher, arts educator, and current Ph.D. student at Harvard University. He will teach a course at BC in the fall semester. 

Most of the pieces Hamilton focused on combine textiles and portraiture, including a mix of painted canvas, embroidered fabric, and hand-woven, traditionally dyed fabrics. Some particular highlights of Hamilton’s body of work are pieces that depict his friends and colleagues as important figures in West and West-Central African history and culture. 

One of his works, called The Founders Project, re-imagines Boston high school students as some of the founders of West and West-Central African ethnic groups, which are the ancestral base of the African diaspora, according to Hamilton’s website. The project, which hung in Roxbury’s Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in 2017, aims to portray powerful representations of Boston’s Black youth. The building is named in honor of Bolling, the first Black president of the Boston City Council. 

Hamilton’s research and art investigate the complex aspects of West African cultures, including religion, gender, power, and the divine feminine. The divine feminine is one of the key ideas in his Between the River and the Forest project, which investigates the role of gender in pre-colonial African spirituality and is currently on display at Regis College.  

In discussing the historical and cultural significance of African textiles, Hamilton placed particular emphasis on the role of indigo. In addition to detailing the process of making and using the distinct dark-blue dye, he mentioned its traditional connection to female power and the occult. 

He also discussed his graphic novel, Itan: Part 1, which is influenced by stories from the Yoruba oral tradition of the West African ethnic group called the Yoruba people. Hamilton said he feels that the comic book medium makes the narratives and traditions from this group more accessible. 

“I’m a nerd, and I like comics,” Hamilton said. “My whole thing is ‘How am I going to relay this information to people?’ Not everybody’s going to read an academic paper.”  

Hamilton also said that he received a grant to study traditional West African arts of weaving, indigo dyeing, and embroidery over nine months in Southern Nigeria so he could teach them to people in Boston who might not otherwise get the chance. Hamilton said that returning from his studies in Africa made him see connections between American and African cultures. 

“I realized how African and American I was at the same time,” Hamilton said. “You’re very cognizant of what’s different and what’s very much the same. Imagine you’re watching a home movie, but it’s dubbed in a different language.”

Near the end of the presentation, Daniels said that she appreciated how Hamilton’s art reminds viewers that ancient traditions haven’t been left to history. Instead, ancient traditions  are rich, living cultures that influence contemporary society. 

Hamilton said that he wants his work to communicate new perspectives of identity. 

“What I’m really interested in is thinking about Black people and how we see ourselves through time and space,” Hamilton said. “That‘s one of the things that’s very important for me, for people to be able to see themselves in all of these different, complex ways.”

Featured Image by Molly Bruns / Heights Staff

March 27, 2022