If you’re familiar with Dell M. Hamilton’s searing performances in recent years about police violence against African Americans, about America and its ideals, her new exhibition “All Languages Welcomed Here” at Salem State University’s Winfisky Gallery from Jan. 10 to Feb. 8, may feel like a surprise.
Because at the heart of this exhibition—which includes a gallery talk on Jan. 16 at 2 p.m. followed by a reception from 6 to 8 p.m.—are monumental, abstract, mixed media drawings and collages.
“Leviathan, The Blue Knight (aka the Beast)” is a turbulent 15-foot-wide collage and drawing, made from charcoal, gel medium, paper, acrylic paint, graphite, gesso, China marker, duct tape, oil pastel, oil bar, staples, collage, plastic, cardboard, masking tape, colored pencil, thread. The paper ripples up like a raging storm. Hamilton writes that it’s inspired by “the cosmos and ocean, mythology, Gray’s Anatomy, weather forecasts, and maps.”
“How Does It Feel to Put Yourself Back Together After You’ve Been Torn Apart” is a 15-foot-wide drawing and collage, scuffed and stained. It’s assembled of papers bluntly stitched together with thread like hastily addressed wounds. The paper has footprints from being left on the floor of her studio, “picking up people’s different scuff marks as they came into the room.” She describes it as a “cumulative performance.” Red drops splash across the center like blood.
Hamilton says the stormy abstract compositions were partly a response to the deaths of Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray after being taken into police custody in 2015. They were among the deaths that galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement nationally in response to police brutality and racism. Hamilton says, “Out of trying to work through some of that trauma that led me into making paintings and drawings again.”
(Hamilton plans to moderate a talk on “The Relationship Between Trauma, Art and Resilience” with Angela Counts, Allison Maria Rodriguez and Umeleni Mhlaba-Adebo at Salem State’s Metro Room in the Ellison Campus Center on Feb. 7 at 4 p.m.)
The abstractions are from a series the Boston artist calls, “Punta: Pregunta.” Hamilton’s family has roots in the Caribbean and Central America. “Punta” refers to the dance of the Central American Garifuna culture. “Pregunta” translates as “question.”
“I am not Garifuna,” Hamilton writes, “but I deeply respect their culture. Given the importance of their rich traditions, I thought about their rightly justified struggles for freedom, autonomy and equity. On the flip side, punta is also a celebratory dance. Taking that into account, I thought of punta as a metaphor for what often happens when I’m in the studio. Sometimes it feels like I’m in a battle, fighting to express myself and gain respect in a field where equity isn’t available to most women artists of color. But there are also days when it indeed feels like a celebratory dance and as a result my footprints, my hands, and marks made by my arms and legs often end up in the work as well. As for pregunta which translates to question, I’m obsessively inquisitive and asking ‘What If?’ is also a major feature of my work.”
The exhibition also features “Emulsions in Departure,” abstract images developed through traditional film photographs put through digital processing. They appear scuffed and scratched, smudged with fingerprints. And along a hallway at the school’s Sophia Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts, Hamilton has hung a series of tarry black abstractions.
All of her abstractions can call to mind mid-20th century Action Painters and Abstract Expressionists like Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner. Hamilton also draws inspiration from Jean Michel Basquiat and Mark Bradford.
Hamilton is scheduled to perform “This Is All We Have” at Salem State’s Sophia Gordon Center on Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. In it, she’ll wear a white dress while pushing a red dresser across the floor. “I’m showing our baggage, unpacking our baggage,” she says. Hamilton then will take on personas—Prissy, an enslaved woman in the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind,” a Border Patrol agent, presidents Lincoln, Obama and Trump. Hamilton says, “This piece expands upon ongoing themes in my work of citizenship and the corrupt histories of plantation economies of North America, the Caribbean and Latin America.”
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