Stephen Hamilton is an artist from Boston, USA. A working grant brought him to Nigeria, where he is currently studying traditional Yoruba art forms. We tracked him down somewhere between Nike Okundaye’s workshops in the towns of Osogbo and Ogidi.
Moussa Kone: Stephen, you received a 9-months artist grant to travel to Nigeria. Can you tell us about the funding institution and the project you are working on?
Stephen Hamilton: I received the Artist Grant from an Organization called Arts Connect International which is dedicated to supporting artists with a focus on issues of inclusion and social justice in their work, who wish to study and collaborate with artists abroad. Before becoming affiliated with them I worked for the Organization Artists for Humanity. That organization was dedicated to provide arts employment for underserved Boston youth. I worked there as a painting studio teacher and mentor. For five years I was specializing in training new participants and organizing special initiatives, working with young adults and developing curriculums and programming for youth.
The project that I am working on through Arts Connect International focuses on Yoruba art and aesthetics as a means of social empowerment for black youth. It was actually started prior to receiving the grant. I developed a curriculum to engage youth of African descent and of varying ethnicities in conversations about Yoruba art and aesthetics. The workshops focused around different aspects of Yoruba religion and philosophy and the students then collaborated to create large scale works about what they learned. Simultaneously I was working on a series of paintings reimaging the students as the Orisha, based on their personalities. I am here in Nigeria studying traditional Yoruba Arts at the Nike Center for Arts and Culture. I hope to not only incorporate them into my artistic praxis but to later create workshops in the U.S. that use these skills to teach and empower young people. Hopefully these workshops will use traditional arts to combat issues of internalized racism as well as social and racial trauma experienced by young people of African descent in the United States. I also hope to in the future increase availability of African and Afro-diasporic history, arts and narratives, for youth outside of typical education systems and creating accessible entry points, through workshops and commercially viable art forms, like comics, animation and fashion.
When did you first get into contact with Yoruba culture in the US?
I have wanted to visit Nigeria since I was in high school, I started learning about Yoruba art and culture during middle school and was studying about it seriously in high school and college. My degree project, my senior thesis in College, was about medieval African literature and black thought and aesthetics, which involved me more seriously reading up of Yoruba divination poetry.
We know about Santeria and other diaspora-religions as transatlantic offspring of Yoruba culture. Your family comes from the south of the USA, regions that have been influenced also by the Caribbean. You mentioned similarities you made out between black American and West African culture. Can you tell us more about that?
There are a lot of cultural connections between West African and African American cultures, this becomes even more palpable when you enter areas where there were historical cross cultural exchanges between American and other Afro Caribbean cultures, such as in New Orleans and in areas where black people lived somewhat in isolation from whites, like the Gullah or Geechee people in the sea islands and coastal Georgia and South Carolina. However even outside of these areas some cultural elements survived. My family is from West Virginia originally. Some foods people eat in the Southern U.S. are very similar to Nigerian foods like rice and beans, black eyed peas, green leafy vegetables with meat, called efo riro in Yoruba, fried chicken and fish, gumbo - ila asepo - or red rice - jollof. This is because some of these crops are originally West African, to begin with cowpeas and okra, or have a long history of cultivation in West Africa, like rice and rice based dishes as well as groundnuts. Many people don't consider the fact that due to the foods being rationed to slaves being an insufficient source of calories for the backbreaking labor they were doing they had to grow their own products and hunt and fish in addition to the work they were doing. There was ample opportunity for culinary fusion to take place.
Also keep in mind that three of the major plantation crops cultivated in the U.S., namely cotton, indigo and rice, are also native to Africa or have African analogues and are not native to Europe. This means that the knowledge these people had concerning the cultivation and use of these crops was crucial to the economic success in the early U.S. In fact there is even evidence that rice cultivation methods used in South Carolina were directly borrowed from those used in the Senegambia region, which is where a bulk of slaves working on those plantations were from. Indigo dyes which can be difficult to extract from the raw leaf, is a very temperamental process, which even white observers comment to being an area of expertise that slaves excelled in. The dye has a complex relationship in African American cultures that were forced to work the plantations, it still bore a somewhat sacred status, people painted their windows and doors blue to protect it from evil spirits, and when root doctors performed divination they often colored their hands blue with indigo or detergent blue-ing. However people still believe that constant exposure to it is toxic and leads to premature death - the smell is terrible - when most likely the culprit was exhaustion, abuse and other poor working conditions instead of the indigo itself. Indigo tie and dye quilts became popular in the southern U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century and while there is no concrete evidence of the survival of the tradition it is hard to believe that there was no connection with West African indigo traditions. If we consider that most of the black people in these regions had ancestors who were from indigo dyeing regions, like the Wolof, Fulani, various Mande groups, Jola, Yoruba and Ibo - all are expert dyers. Many worked on indigo plantations and the last slaves brought from Africa to the U.S. - who were Yoruba by the way - didn't die until the 1930s.
You are spending lots of time working together with traditional artists. You developed high skills in woodcarving, indigo-dyeing, batik and cloth weaving. The Yoruba aesthetic language, patterns, motives and their stories became part of your work in the studio as a painter as well. You also were teaching younger artists. Is it also the other way round, that people adopt styles from you? How does this transition of knowledge and artistic ideas work?
I worked very briefly with some of the young people at Nike Okundaye’s workshop in Osogbo, but I hope that the the small lesson that I gave them was helpful in their arts training, They are very talented young people. Nigeria has no shortage of talented artists and I doubt it ever had. With the older master artists I am not sure if it worked the other way around. Only time will tell. I think people often ignore how dynamic African art is and that those who come from traditional arts backgrounds are not at all restricted to a set of symbols and techniques. They evolve change and grow as any other artist does, the only difference is that their training starts from a non-western pedagogy and many of my teachers were eager to learn and develop new skills and rediscover old ones. For me the experience has been intense. I feel as though I am not only learning something new, but regaining something that has been lost, taken even. It is very cathartic and I feel as if the knowledge has made me more complete as artist and as a human being. Although I am in no ways finished learning I feel like I gained important tools to help express and experiment with the themes of my work.
During daytime you head out for the traditional Yoruba workshops while at night you return to your more intimate studio space, where you continue with your work as a painter. Can you tell us about the series you have been working on since you arrived in Nigeria?
The series of paintings that I am working on are in many ways an extension of the work that I was doing in the United States. I have been creating portraits of the Orisha, using artists and members of the traditional religious community here in southwestern Nigeria as models. The pieces are all done infusing traditional Yoruba textile and woodcarving techniques with western painting. I also created some paintings exploring images of places from Yoruba lore as well as images of precolonial Yoruba architecture. The point of the series was to explore the use of both ancient and modern artmaking techniques to create work talking about continuity, complexity and dynamic adaptability in Yoruba culture and aesthetics through time.
You dedicate yourself on the study of traditional techniques. You are fermenting leaves instead of buying the modern Chinese dye. You learn how to carve with a self-made chisel or use cheap foam instead of a brush for wax painting. You spent weeks in the hills of Ogidi, where traditional Yoruba cloth is woven. I imagine this to be a very intense material or physical experience. Do you think this process is later visible in the outcome of the artwork? Or is it more driven from the effects it has on you, yourself?
The natural indigo is time intensive but much less toxic than the modern Chinese dyes and uses a far more sustainable technique than the industrial products. The color and control you have over the indigo dye's product is also greater considering that the color of synthetic dyes is approximate and that with actual indigo the depth of color can be controlled by how many times a cloth is submerged instead of strength of the dye mixture. That being said using traditional local dyes is incredibly time extensive. It takes a week for the indigo to ferment and preparing the alkaline solution from ashes is harder than simply adding caustic soda. The same goes for preparing the guinea corn for the red dye and the kola nut for the brown dye. Although these two dyes do not require fermentation they have to be pounded and boiled to release the color - what is much harder than opening a pack of aniline dye. They also have to soak longer in the dye bath. The results are more authentic especially when done on hand spun, hand woven fabric. There is a look to it that cannot be reproduced any other way and there is a peculiarity to the colors that I always had trouble reproducing with synthetic dyes. There is also a multisensory effect that is missing when using more modern techniques. The smell of the the indigo - pungent - and guinea corn - sweet - and the feel of handspun cotton are both unique and add to the depth of the work. Woodcarving on the other hand has less to do with the tools. The panel work that I was doing was made mostly with "modern tools". The techniques and methods do not change much, what matters most is that your tools are sharp.
Osogbo is famous for the work of Susanne Wenger, an Austrian artist who moved in 1951 to Nigeria and died 58 years later known as Adunni Olorisa. She was responsible for the “New Sacred Art“ movement and introduced a Modern shrine architecture. Her influential work has also been criticized. Funny though, that today many people in the diaspora think the Grove is the last remaining expression of precolonial Yoruba culture. Ulli Beier wrote that Yoruba culture has a tendency and openness to integrate alien elements, without losing its identity. Is this also your experience or is it a romantic European idea?
Although I love and appreciate the work that Susanne Wenger did it does make me sad that the largest remaining shrine complex in Yorubaland does not resemble the ancient style of Yoruba architecture. Looking at online photo databases I had a chance to see some of the old Yoruba and Edo palaces and shrines, with their massive thatched roofs intricately carved and molded pillars made of wood or clay, old style Yoruba doors and other unique architectural features that either don't exist in Yorubaland today or are in an even more dilapidated state than they were at the turn of the 20th century. I understand fully what Ulli Beier is saying, it is true to many African and Afro-diasporic cultures. The ability to simultaneously be ancient and new at the same time is a very palpable feature in Yoruba culture. The adaptability and eclectic nature of Yoruba thought and aesthetics is what allowed it and the numerous other civilizations of Africa to endure the horrors of slavery and flourish in the the Americas. However, it cannot be ignored that many - not all - contemporary Nigerians do not have an appreciation for the old styles of architecture and traditional culture in general. Although I must acknowledge that my longing to see and preserve such spaces is colored by my own cultural background. Such devaluing of the rich heritage of Nigeria is directly related to colonization and the colonized mindset that it spawned. The introduction of a non-inclusive, non-integrated western education system created fostered a peculiar form of self-deprecation in the minds of many Nigerians.
I couldn't count how many times I have heard Nigerians speak of the precolonial era as "before civilization" or "before the British brought civilization" even when favorably reminiscing about their own cultures. Colonial narratives reinforce that idea that white people bring modernity and that Europeans are representatives of high culture and "civilization" and as much as Susanne Wenger and Ulli Beier fought to remove that perception from some of the people they interacted with, we must acknowledge the privileged positions they held when they entered these cultural spaces, due to the fact that they were White and European. That unfortunately - and ironically fortunately - gave their perceptions and opinions more credence than that of Nigerian traditionalists who held the same perspectives. That being said, Susanne Wenger's work was incredibly collaborative and innovative in the sense that she completely immersed herself into Yoruba culture and collaborated with artists, craftspeople, priests and priestesses to create a vision that beautifully represents the creative spirit of Yoruba spirituality. A spirit that is both adaptable and innovative. Throughout her life she explored Yoruba thought and spirituality and championed its exuberance, beauty, power and sophistication. However we cannot forget that she was one of the many who continued this tradition and did not single handedly revive it.
We distinguish between contemporary fine arts and design, which is often thought of as more "decorative". The difference is defined simply by the market. The success of the "New Sacred Art" movement in the past was also based on connections to collectors, galleries and institutions abroad. There is still hardly any market for contemporary artwork in Nigeria itself, international artists most likely have their collectors overseas. Is it possible to draw a line between the more handcraft-orientated folkloric genres to the contemporary scene? Or doesn’t this separation exist from the view of inside Nigeria?
It is difficult for me to answer such a question as I am still relatively new to the art world here. What I can say is that although the foreign market is incredibly relevant to contemporary Nigerian art, there is a growing community of Nigerian collectors. The largest collection of contemporary Nigerian art belongs to Yemisi Shylon, who is Nigerian. There is also a huge connection between traditional arts and contemporary arts. Many if not most of the artists that I have met come from families of traditional artisans and at times their start in the arts world comes from training in traditional arts. Chief Nike Okundaye and Bruce Onobrakpeya are two examples. Many artists are exploring themes related to African identities, politics and culture in the postcolonial context, and how culture and tradition survives, changes and impacts contemporary life. Traditional artists and craftspeople often - but not always - have a similar outlook. if we look at the work of artists such as Lamidi Fakeye and Olowe of Ise, we can see how they explore issues of spirituality, modernity, continuity and change in their work. They were Yoruba Artists that work in a Yoruba aesthetic framework to create work that is not simply a rehashing of age-old techniques and themes, but is a representation of their own personal experiences and worldviews, spoken through traditional Yoruba aesthetics.
Nike Okundaye owns probably the biggest gallery for African Contemporary Art on the continent, a four-story building in Lagos. You have met and worked with many of the artists represented by her. I had the impression that many of the artworks are being produced especially for an audience that is looking for something "authentic African". I wonder if these paintings aren’t more a representation of how we think that African Art should be or whether they are also criticizing exactly this, or me, the spectator. Having met so many artists in person, how aware are they of postcolonial discourses?
I cannot speak for all of the artists represented at such a large gallery, but I can say that many Nigerian contemporary artists are very aware of postcolonial discourses and are exploring complex issues of identity, culture and politics in their work. There is an aesthetic that unites much of the work that they are creating, due to shared experiences and environments, but there is also a great variety of themes and techniques they use. I have seen artist tackle issues of corruption, feminism, love, beauty, sexuality, cultural heritage, war, masculinity, colonialism, parenthood, wealth - both metaphorical and physical - and poverty through a uniquely Nigerian cultural lens. There is a depth and complexity to the work that often times escapes the casual observer. I have spent weeks in chief Nike’s gallery and have observed so many people as they respond to the work. Foreign visitors, although often impressed with the skill of the work often treat them as passing curiosities. Their draw is purely aesthetic and there is little or no interest in understanding the underlying themes and contexts that inform such aesthetics. The most interesting response almost always come from Nigerians themselves, there is a sense of both nostalgia and fascination. They contribute fascinating interpretations of the themes of the work from the view of cultural insiders. Even when their theories are far off, there is still a sense of shared experience. They honestly see themselves in the work, which always made me wonder about the difference between Nigerian buyers and non-African buyers in terms of their attachment to the work they invest in.
In a few weeks you will be returning to Boston, after spending intense nine months in Yoruba cities. What is it you are going to bring back to the US? Is there a Stephen Hamilton before and one after?
In addition to the work I have done here I am returning armed with the experience of living in different yet related cultural context. I have learned so much about Yoruba art and culture, and so much more about myself. These are ancestral arts and creating them is almost spiritual and meditative in nature. I understand their complexity and the magic of it all so much more now. I have experiences but a taste of adire indigo dyeing, wood carving, weaving and also Ifá divination and it has opened my eyes to the immensity of it all. Its bottom is unseen and I doubt I will ever see it, but I am now empowered to explore its depths. I want to share what little I know with my community in the hopes that they would be empowered in the same way.
Thank you Stephen for the unique insights you gave us and for sharing your artwork with us.