The labor-intensive, process-oriented works of artist and educator Stephen Hamilton aim to address the persistent lack of positive, multidimensional representations of Black life in American culture. Hamilton makes connections between historical and contemporary cultures by incorporating both Black American and West African traditions, combining figurative painting and drawing with techniques such as resist dyeing, weaving, and woodcarving.
Growing out of the artist’s research and interest in developing a program on West African cultural continuities in the African diaspora, The Founders Project is a series of nine multimedia paintings that reimagine Boston public high school students as the storied founders of West and West-Central African ethnic groups. Each life-size work combines painting with weaving and sculptural traditions specific to the ethnic group whose story is depicted. In Jahnae Wyatt as Queen Poku, Jahnae Wyatt, one of Hamilton’s former students is portrayed as Poku, legendary queen of the Baule people of modern day Ivory Coast. According to legend, when her people were fleeing the violent expansionist wars of the Ashanti people, they came upon a river too deep and wide to cross. Queen Poku offered her infant son to the river spirit in exchange for her people’s safe passage. After this sacrifice, hippopotamuses emerged from the river’s depths and her people were able to walk across the animals’ backs to safety. Wyatt is portrayed as Queen Poku at the decisive moment just before her sacrifice, flanked on either side by hippos emerging from the river. Painted on hand-dyed cloth and framed on either side by hand-carved wooden sculptures (all recalling elements of Baule culture), Queen Poku’s dress is a hand-woven passage of fabric. Hamilton weaves together past and present, creating a bridge between the ancient and modern worlds.