One year ago we published our first interview on this blog with Stephen Hamilton, an artist from Boston, USA. At that time he was still on his research trip to Yorubaland. He spent nine months in various towns and villages, studying traditional art techniques and Ifá poetry and worked on a series of beautiful Olorisha portrait paintings.
His new project now brings together the knowledge he gathered from Yoruba culture and spirituality with a very American form of visual storytelling. Stephen Hamilton’s new Graphic Novel „Itan: Part One“ is a very refreshing contribution to the contemporary image of the Orisha, the Yoruba deities. Moreover, it deals with important political questions, like the way how people of African descent are represented in the Western media. We met Stephen for an interview on his comic book project and his projects educating the youth, using West African art and thought for social empowerment.
You can support this important work by pre-ordering a copy of the beautiful comic book on Stephen’s website at www.itanproject.com!
Moussa: Stephen, you are currently working on a Graphic Novel based on Yoruba Oral Literature. The book is entitled „Itan: Part One“. What is the book’s story about?
Stephen: “Itan: Part One” is a graphic novel is drawn heavily from Ifa divination poetry and oriki, praise songs. The novel is based on three or four so-called “ese” (verses) in Odu’s Ejiogbe, Ika Meji, and Ose Otura (Osetura), interspersed with the oriki of certain Orisha mentioned in each verse. Some parts of the graphic novel are non-linear and rely heavily on visually translating the imagery of the verse more so than telling a story. In these sections the goal is to relay the beauty of Yoruba wordplay through the illustration. Other chapters however will relay a definite narrative. This is the case with the “ese” drawn from Osetura, when the Irunmole, the primordial Orisha, descend into the universe to create the world and fail due to the exclusion of Oshun, the only woman among them.
I have seen fascinating photos on your Instagram account from the production process of „Itan". You are combining painting with West African traditional art forms like beadwork, embroidery, hand-woven textiles, tie-dye techniques, etc. How did you develop this unique form of mixed-media artwork?
The panels for the comic are painted directly on pieces of Yoruba adire cloth that has been coated with acrylic polymer. They are then digitally composed along with hand woven, carved and beaded elements. People often belittle traditional art forms as mere craft or even “fetish”, when in reality the men and women who create them often have the same creative impetus and skill as western artists. Like other art traditions there are established aesthetics and theory which is used to create this work, and artists are very much free to explore within these systems or break out of them. For me it is incredibly important to highlight the beauty of Yoruba art forms. Incorporating these arts allows me to explore and present Yoruba aesthetics in their traditional forms, while juxtaposing them with mixed media and digital illustration.
Images of Yoruba deities have become a prominent part of Western pop-culture. I have seen projects, films and comics, where Orisha become superheroes or highly photoshopped glossy studio-portraits. Oshun often is the "sensual half-naked black woman with straight hair“-stereotype and Ogun seems to have had a career as a bodybuilder, modeled more after a Greek statue than a Yoruba hunter would look like. Even Osanyin, the god of plants, has two legs and two eyes in some of those images, as you mentioned.
Yeah, I think more people - specifically those of us in the diaspora - are becoming more curious about our own ancestral beliefs, cultures and heritage, but when you grow up in a society that bombards you with such Eurocentric ideas, surrounding mythology, spirituality, power, gender and sexuality, it can become difficult to perceive anything outside of that lens. It becomes difficult to even see yourself outside of the lens of the other. Orisha do not fit into Greco-Roman or broader Indo-European archetypes. When you place them into these boxes you ignore the multifaceted and unique characteristics they possess as uniquely Yoruba entities. Shango is fire, thunder and lightning, He loves women and is a powerfully masculine entity, but he also wears his hair in long braids like a woman does. He adorns his skin with camwood, he loves to dance and dress ornately and beautifully. These traits, that some view as feminine, do not detract from his power and virility. He is a fierce king, “fire-that-kills-water” is one of his praise names earned for his wild temper, but also a symbol of justice and fairness as he despises liars and cheats. He is all of these things and MUCH MUCH more. He is not Zeus or Thor, he is Shango and you must look at him as Shango through a Yoruba cultural lens if you truly want to understand what he means in that context. These African contexts possess so much beauty and complexity as the origin of aesthetic principles that shape who we are in the diaspora. I wore my hair in braids as child and teenager, so did many of my peers. The idea of Oya braiding Shango’s hair before a festival, the idea that we share that experience with a divine being, is far more interesting to me than a reskinned image of Zeus that captures none of the nuance or particulars of of his character.
That being said, I feel that due to ignorance about Orisha traditions many people end up taking pop culture references to Orisha as cannon. For many people who saw Beyonce’s lemonade video, Beyonce smashing things in a yellow dress is Oshun rather than a gloss of a particular facet of a particular manifestation of Oshun in the context of a myriad of African and African American cultural influences made in the film. What's worse is that many people writing about the work also did not have the cultural competency to analyze said references in a meaningful way. People who quickly glance at Wikipedia articles are not Iya- or Babalorisha, initiates, experts, even students in African or Afro-American cultures. So once again the Orisha are made into one dimensional beings oddly dissociated from the cultural contexts that they originate. I don’t think there is anything wrong with creating artwork about the Orisha or any other aspect of West African philosophical or religious thought, so long as it is well researched and you are prepared to address the complexity and variety that exists in relation to the tradition in which you base your work. There is nothing wrong with being inspired or influenced by African art, culture and philosophy, in fact I encourage artists of African descent to explore this in their work. However, the moment you introduce actual figures in a living faith it is morally irresponsible not to consider the incredible amount of misinformation being spread about African based religious traditions and take steps not to contribute to that with the work you are doing.
I heard the characters in your graphic novel are modeled after your students. A beautiful gesture, that gives an importance to the people around us and the divine aspects in everyday life. You spoke about the representation - or misrepresentation - of African Americans in the media. Your comic is not just driven by Yoruba spirituality, it is more than that, it is political work.
Yes! The models for most of the characters in the book are my former students. I really wanted to show them the divinity that exists inside themselves. I often think of a quote by John Biggers "I learned a long time ago that self-dignity and racial pride could be consciously approached through art." This has been one of the driving forces in my work for a very long time. Incorporating my students - who are each talented artists themselves - in this way is one of the most poignant ways I could think of to address the issue of representation and visibility of people of color in the comic. In this way, I reinforce that this work is for them and others like them.
When we met in Osogbo at the Nike Okundaye guesthouse you were studying in the workshops of the local sculptors and tie-dyeing men and women, also to transmit this knowledge back to the US. Now I have seen you are already into teaching the next generation of young artists in West African artforms. How is this experience now, teaching the youth? Is it different to what you have done before your stay in Yorubaland?
Teaching young people these artforms is incredibly rewarding! It means so much to me to be able to share what I have learned with another generation of young artists and it means even more to me that they will be able to teach Adire Oniko and Aso Ofi weaving to successive generations. Tie and dye traditions were incredibly widespread throughout West and Central Africa and would have been known to many of the enslaved peoples brought to the United States and Latin America. In fact, many of the skills used in the dyeing arts were exploited on indigo plantations during the 18th and19th century. Reviving these artforms in the diaspora is an act of reclamation and is a very different experience from what I was teaching before.
You mention Ifa, the divination system used by Yoruba, Edo and Ewe speaking people, as an important source for your work. You call it an African knowledge system and I know you studied Ifa poetry in Nigeria. Who was teaching you in Ifa verses and how did you get insights into oral literature?
When I was In Osogbo I was working with Awodele Onifade, a young babalawo, who is part of the incredibly close knit Orisha community there. I also had the opportunity of traveling through Osogbo with him to meet and talk to other members of the Orisha community of Osogbo Including Segun Faleye, Sangodare Ajala, the Erinmi of Osogbo, the senior Arugba Oshun as well as the Iya Oshun of Osogbo. I also had the opportunity of meeting and talking to Oshun priestess Adedoyin Olosun and the Araba of Osogbo, Yemi Elebuibon, as well. All of these conversations were crucial in the development of the aesthetic of the comic. I was able to record numerous verses and prayers from Awodele, I also learned the 16 major Odu and their signatures from him. The Verses I chose to use are the ones in which I got more in depth translations. What was most interesting to me was the layers upon layers of metaphor a proverb used in the verses. Even the names of the legendary babalawo in the verses are themselves proverbs, which often relate directly to history contained in the verse. The names of individuals can also be proverbial. There is a use of wordplay that is also used in other Yoruba verbal art forms such as ijala and oriki, that plays off of the innate tonality of the Yoruba language as well as double entendre, puns and metaphor. Although many of these elements are lost to the English speaking reader, I feel that representing at least part of the Yoruba verbal arts is incredibly important to the project.
I learned a lot from you about African history. History, that isn’t written in books, never became officially told, oppressed by the colonization, like many details from the story of Benin city. Nigeria even officially abolished the teaching of history in schools some years ago.
It is a shame that Nigerian history is not given the respect it deserves. There is such a rich and ancient past there, one that has had such a huge impact on the diaspora as well as the rest of the continent. Although I can’t speak for the education system in Nigeria I can speak from my experience as a student in the United States. There was no focus on pre-colonial African history in any required course I took, at any level of my formal education. This included my experience in primary and secondary school, where Black and Latino (most of whom were also of African descent) students made up the overwhelming majority of the student body. My education in African history as well as Afro-diaspora cultural studies comes from independent research, mostly from scouring libraries and reading scholarly articles. Every time we had the option to independently study a topic I was sure to study African history. Through this study I began to realize how much of our history was omitted and the greater negative social impact of such omissions. What is worse is that often we don’t even know that we do not know, the assumption that we have no history is so firmly embedded, that we often cannot imagine any history outside of that of the oppressor. It is crucial that we learn our history, it has a powerful impact on who we are and who we have the potential to be. Without it, there can be no foundation in which a nation or people can build upon.
People can pre-order your book and help you to finance the whole project. I have already posted my order - where can our readers order and when will it be finished?
“Itan: Part One” can be pre-ordered at www.itanproject.com. The comic should be finished by this November.
„Itan: Part One“ sounds like the starting point of a series. What are the plans for the future?
Ifa is endless so there are plenty more stories that I want to tell, drawing from that corpus of poetry. I also want to explore Afro-Cuban Patakines and other folkloric Yoruba derived traditions, as they exist in Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago. There is definitely more coming after I finish this first installment.
Thank you again Stephen for this interview! I am looking forward to receiving the Graphic Novel!
You might also want to read the interview from 2016 with Stephen Hamilton on West African and diaspora art traditions.
Upcoming Exhibition and Artists Panel “Textiles as Art Objects and Cultural Artifacts”
“Stitched Into Memory” is an arts education initiative teaching West African textile arts to Boston youth. In collaboration with the Friends of Fort Point Channel, the project celebrates and commemorates the historic and contemporary African Diaspora communities of Boston. In celebration of Stephen Hamilton’s upcoming exhibit “Stitched Into Memory” there’s a free exhibit sneak peek and panel discussion covering the importance of textiles as artifacts in relation to the African Diaspora.
Moderator is Edmund Barry Gaither, the Director and Curator at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. Participating panelists are Pamela Parmal, Curator of the Textile Arts Department at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Ife Franklin, Textile Artist and Founder of the Ancestor Cabin Project - and Stephen Hamilton!
Thursday, July 13, 6-8pm, Atlantic Wharf, 290 Congress St, Boston, MA 02210
All about the Graphic Novel at www.itanproject.com
The “Stitched Into Memory” project at stitchedintomemory.tumblr.com
Stephen Hamilton on Instagram