A new show at Mass MoCA takes a closer look at the landscape — not just as a visual attraction, but as something that affects everyday human lives and communities.
Although the scope of this theme is extensive, the vessel to address it is more personal: The artist Allison Janae Hamilton uses scenes from her Southern childhood as the basis for her show, entitled “Pitch.”
“Pitch” brings together older works by Hamilton, including photography and sculpture, with some site-specific creations, including one installation that focuses on the turpentine industry. The show is an effort not to recreate strict copies drawn from Hamilton’s childhood experiences, but rather the feeling of these landscapes from her past and how this feeling relates to the experience of others in different landscapes.
“I don’t really see it as a show about the South,” Hamilton explained. “I see it as landscapes first, and I hope it can connect throughout other landscapes and places and experiences. I would also say that in terms of tense and time period, my hope for the show is that it shows a continuum. It’s not rooted in history. You do have to look toward history.”
Hamilton lives in New York City now, but her youth was divided between Florida and Tennessee, between urban and rural, with a more typical childhood in Miami alternating with lengthy visits to the family farm in western Tennessee, where her extended family would congregate at harvest time to help out.
It was on that farm that Hamilton first began to explore photography as a means not only to capture the personal but also to explore the past. In middle school, her focus was on darkroom photography, and her camera came with her everywhere, including to the farm, which had been in her family for generations.
“To spend time on land that my great-grandmother spent time on and lived on, or that my grandmother — she’s 87 — to sit under the same tree that my grandmother sat under when she was little, there’s something to that,” Hamilton said. “And to sit in a space that has been unchanged as history has changed all around it, I think that’s very powerful.”
“That’s a thing that’s hard for me to convey, because my life as an African American woman living in 2018 is a lot different from my great-grandmother who could sit under the same tree,” Hamilton added. “That’s a feeling that even now I find very difficult to put into words, but it feels very heavy. I don’t mean that necessarily in a negative way, but there’s just a lot to that. And I think landscape witnesses all of that.”
Linking land and lives
Hamilton said she began to understand these connections very early on as she used her photography to document the farm. At the same time, she became very enamored of landscape photography, especially the work of Ansel Adams, and started to think more about the human connection to the landscape as a relationship, which was accentuated by the differences in experience she noticed as her life shifted between Tennessee and Florida.
“When I would visit my family on the farm, there wasn’t a lot to do,” Hamilton said. “I grew up in the Miami area partly, and there’s kids, there’s school, technology, soccer practice, all this stuff, and when you go to the farm, there’s not a lot to do, so people sit around and talk. At least when I was growing up, you talk, and people tell stories. So for me, that was marked by a shift in the landscape. That only happened when I was in Tennessee. For me, place was tied to that type of passing down of knowledge.”
Hamilton said she began to channel family stories into her work, and even more so when she began to move beyond photography, accentuating the presentation of her work with sculpture.
But then she also began to think about and add elements of history, particularly concerning the institution of slavery. Hamilton said she noticed how the landscape was used to justify it as acceptable and, in turn, affected not only single lives and families but also huge populations, shaping struggles for generations to follow.
“There was this idea that if you brought a population from one landscape or climate to a place that had a similar topography that it wasn’t really harmful,” Hamilton said. “It wasn’t a violent removal of a community or groups of people — ‘they’re used to this’ — so if you take people from a sub-Saharan African continent and move them to the subtropical climate of the southern United States, it’s still humane, it’s OK.”
At the same time, Hamilton pondered how landscape could be a comfort as well, especially in spiritual terms, providing refuge. It made her think about things like the old oak trees in the South, standing as silent witnesses to the human tapestry.
“Those old trees, history has just passed right in front of them,” she said. “What else is standing for that long? The landscape has outlived pretty much everything and seen everything. It’s thinking about everything from that multi-faceted perspective, about how something can be beautiful and haunting and all these things at once.”
Going beyond photography
It was in New York City, though, that this all came together for Hamilton, mainly because of a change in the demographics of her immediate community. It was the first time she had serious interaction with other artists, in particular, artists from all over the world. This broadened her ideas about landscape and human life and helped her hone her presentation of them.
At first she had used sculpture to accentuate her photography, but Hamilton began to consider crafting experiences for viewers and moving toward installation work. She wanted not only to communicate the ideas in her photos but also to give herself the opportunity to guide viewers through a thought process with a deliberate placement of items. She wanted to create an experience that wrapped itself around the viewer, much like the landscape itself and the feelings she had within it.
“I think it also helps to think about things in the abstract, or to communicate an emotion or a feeling or a mood,” she explained, “in a way that I don’t know what the optics are going to be for some of the more abstract things that I’ve made but I know that this is how it feels for me when I’m in this space. Or I’m going to make something that looks like a feeling or what an idea would feel like.”
More than anything, Hamilton’s work is about the connections that landscapes can be the bridge for — alongside people. She thinks about her grandmother, who was delivered at birth by her great-great-grandmother, and the connection she feels with that woman from generations before because of the link her grandmother and the family farm provide.
“My grandmother can tell stories about, ‘oh yeah, well my great-great-grandmother walked out and could do this,’ and I can walk out the same land and know what someone was doing,” Hamilton said. “She doesn’t feel like an ancestor, she feels like a family member. Landscape is a container for talking through these things.”
Allison Janae Hamilton’s “Pitch” opened March 24 and remains on view through February 2019 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. More information is available at massmoca.org.
Originally published at hillcountryobserver.com.