BY Lonna Dawson
Gallery visitors considered two adjacent photographs, one of a tombstone and the other from the vantage point of the person buried beneath it, at Rush Arts Gallery in Chelsea. As they continued through the gallery, they stopped at a photograph of a woman dressed in a lace gown with antlers protruding from her head. Another photograph showed a man in a field whose face was hidden by a fox’s mask adorned with a black veil. In his hand, as if he were holding a person, was another fox head wearing a top hat.
Visitors were there to see Kingdom of the Marvelous, a collection by artist Allison Janae Hamilton, which combined photography and installation art to reimagine African American history through whimsical and at times dark elements. The collection was on exhibit at the Midtown gallery September 4 – 20. It will also be displayed at the SCOPE Miami Beach art show in Miami Beach December 2 – 7.
Hamilton, 30, found inspiration for Kingdom of the Marvelous in the summers she spent on her grandmother’s farm in McLemoresville, Tenn., a town of 350 people about 60 miles northeast of Memphis. Born and raised in Miami, Hamilton’s childhood was filled with memories of growing soybeans and corn on the farm, making persimmon beer and sharing stories of a gun-toting Aunt Birdie. “I visited the farm a lot as a kid, so a lot of the elements in the show are exaggerations of things that I remember,” said Hamilton.
Years later, she found vintage photos from family members’ homes in McLemoresville, which became the basis for her exhibition. Inspired by those images, she recreated aspects of her family’s history by taking staged pictures of models wearing antebellum era clothing and haberdashery, like lace and string bow ties, and elements of taxidermy inspired by her family’s hunting background. “I used [the photos as] a jumping off point to think about race, gender, sexuality, self-making and how all these elements converge to become how we present or perform an identity,” said Hamilton.
Another work involved a metal chair positioned in the corner, covered by innumerable bed sheets that overflowed from the chair onto worn, mismatched linoleum floor tiles. In this installation, the tiles place the viewer in Hamilton’s family kitchen while the sheets are a nod to the protective covers her grandmother used to keep the family’s furniture impervious to dirt and child’s play.
Kingdom of the Marvelous was Hamilton’s first exhibit as an artist-in-residence at Rush Arts Gallery, where she was given workspace to create and present her art. Other prominent artists who have been residents of the gallery include Kehinde Wiley and Wangechi Mutu, according to Charlotte Mouquin, curator and director of Rush Arts Gallery. “Our recent artists-in-residence are doing amazing things, residences, international exhibitions and are on The Grio’s 40 Amazing Black Artists to Watch in 2014 list,” said Mouquin.
Hamilton’s work was intended to intermix truth and fiction to make the viewer wonder what is real and what is imagined. “When you see a figure who’s wearing antlers, you don’t really know if it’s a human or a ghost,” said Hamilton, referring to “haints,” a Southern term for ghosts that she picked up from her family in Tennessee.
Charles Briggs, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, said that combining truth and imagination has a long history in art and story-telling. “To have a binary opposition between fact and fiction short-changes the complex process through which lives become stories,” said Briggs.
Suzanne Anker, chairwoman of the undergraduate Fine Arts Department at the School for Visual Arts describes this artistic approach of reimagining history. “Artists engage in what I term critical fictions, story that may or may not be true but yet has truth-value in it,” said Anker. “Critical fiction necessarily taps into the cultural imaginary. Those sets of feelings, rules, zeitgeist of the time when people cannot necessarily rationally describe what is going on.”
For Michelle Charles, a gallery visitor, the collection of images in Hamilton’s exhibit revealed a new way of viewing African American history. “You never really see archival images of black people that are really romantic and gothic,” said Charles. “We forget the beautiful artifacts that come from that time. We get so fixated on the struggle, which was of course very important, but we sometimes forget there is a richness of history.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Kingdom of the Marvelous would be displayed at the Art Basel show in Miami Beach December 4 – 7.