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While wrapping up my first visit to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, my friend Marnie asked if I had entered the room holding Allison Janae Hamilton's work, "It's about Florida." I was intrigued, having grown up my entire life in North Carolina, and now living in Miami, I'm always eager to see how artists portray the South, with some of the most fervent spectacles of Southern myth-making emanating from Florida. The "Florida Man" twitter account dedicates itself exclusively to grotesque and absurd tales out of the state, with an emphasis on criminal encounters, and boasts a following of nearly 400,000.
As I walked up the stairs I heard sounds growing louder, a beating tempo and voices that were hard to make out, human or maybe non, then finally entered a room filled with tall logs of pine. As I looked at the sign planks with roughly painted symbols, one painted only with a repetition of the word "mother", I felt as though I had stumbled upon a clandestine space–there were spells being spoken here, perhaps not for me, yet here I was, seeking and remaining to listen. The more I stayed in the room the more I did listen, not just to the tonal sounds from Hamilton's remarkable video installation "Floridaland", but to all the intermingling signs of life, real and imagined, that the space held. Pitch traverses meditations on landscape, Southern tradition, Black being, environmental exploitation and degradation, violence and familial inheritance as an incantation, a residual and resounding musicality.
I spoke with the Southern born and raised Hamilton, who currently lives and works in New York City, about her show Pitch to hear more about the intentions and process behind her first solo exhibition.
Zaina Alsous: What were some of your influences for Pitch? How did the vision come together for you?
Allison Janae Hamilton: Like most of my work, the show is inspired by my continued exploration of the landscape, particularly the landscape of the American South, I'm always using the materials of the physical land as a way to explore history, as a way to explore mysticism, to explore environmental justice and injustice and how people live and cope in, and on the land. Having grown up in Florida both south and north, and all of my family is from different parts of the south, I'm always struck, coming from farmers on both sides, how tied my personal family history is with land and landscape and how culturally crucial land is [even though] that isn't something that's necessarily known or studied in our mainstream culture.
Especially in an African American context where "urban" becomes synonymous with Blackness but having grown up in a rural context myself, I think one kind of byproduct of the work is that it disrupts urban as a synonym for blackness though that is an important part of our history. My focus is always on the rural landscape and how we deal with the environmental impacts how we interact with each other as people. So the show is really influenced by this personal history mixed with folklore and song and putting it together in ways that are really questioning today how have all these experiences, this conglomerate and this kind of summation of history, how does that impact us today.
ZA: For anyone who studies the American South there is a dialectic tension to confront, the beauty and horror of it, the vestiges of the plantation and its simultaneous expansive greenness, and we inevitably read & project these tensions onto the natural setting. What role did using natural materials have for you, what if anything surprised you in evoking this landscape in a more intimate space?
AJH: The beauty and haunting kind of combination is something that is always at the forefront when I think about the South even when I visit, when I go home, I think you can't help but notice and feel that. So, I'm always bringing that feeling into the work but specifically relating to the materials, this show involved a lot of educating myself on a specific history of the turpentine industry which I think this was the first time I looked at a particular history that I didn't necessarily have a personal connection to. Through that process I learned a great deal about how through labor, not only forced labor under American slavery, but in all the institutions that dovetailed and continued in these defacto ways I really got a sense of how it permeates throughout the culture of north Florida and South Georgia and just how haunting the remnants of that industry are.
At one point turpentine was the second largest industry in Florida behind citrus, so it's this really important legacy in Southern culture and Florida history and culture so learning about that brought a lot of surprises. There was one turpentine boss I read about who would name the different brands of rosin after the skin color of the workers in the camps, so the lightest colored rosin was the "highest" quality, and the darkest was the most crude or lowest quality, so just all the ways these really horrific histories of labor are also made so mundane in everyday gestures. All the ways these very large and haunting narratives get sliced down to these small moments, a lot of that really stuck with me the more I read. The turpentine industry was such that workers were indebted almost immediately after they joined, because you would live basically in the pine woods in these makeshift cabins, so [workers] were technically given a home, not of good quality but you are in debt for that and in debt for the initial supplies and food. You are constantly working to pay back this debt and workers were also paid in currency that could only be used at the company, and if a parent died their child would take on this debt, so it really was another kind of slavery, that continued long after emancipation and reconstruction, up until 2001. I tried to translate that kind of heaviness in the mood of the room and in some of the pacing in the video.
ZA: An additional tension you navigate in Pitch is that of myth and memory. Especially in the context of the origin story atrocities of the U.S. there is a sense of a responsibility and weight attached to witness, but we know that we are always also existing within the frame of myth–the myths that have been violently ascribed and the myths that have served resistance and survival, and certainly there is a surrealist element to some of your work. How do you want audiences to relate to this tension of myth and memory, especially as it relates to the context of the South?
AJH: I don't know if there was a particular take away that I definitely wanting the audience to feel, for me that is a constant grappling and exploration that I'm always doing. I grew up in the Baptist church, Southern Black church, in that context there's all these surpluses of spirituality that have nothing to do with Christianity that are these diasporic carry overs that existed. In the same way that in Catholic traditions people have always been able to syncretize Orishas under the identity of different Saints and things like that, so even in the Baptist tradition you always get these remnants that aren't "straight" Christianity. There's folktales and superstitions that I always grew up hearing passed down and passed around, and then there are also the violent myths.
The last project I did at Storm King Art Center I was really interested in hurricanes not only as natural disasters but also as illuminating of social disasters. In the aftermath of hurricanes, you really see how myth-making is done around the survivors of these storms, especially after Katrina or more recently in Puerto Rico, there's this fear of survivors that's employed. Even myth making in the context of natural disaster, all of that comes into play in the work. In African American culture where there are these gaps and limits as part of the remnants of slavery where people from all different parts of Africa with different languages were brought over and families and children separated, there's a history that persists but there are inevitable gaps. New histories and new languages are formed but there are these moments and these pockets where you can't quite get the whole story, so I'm always playing with that slippage.
ZA: I was really struck by the refrain "My mind was an orchard but then I killed the trees" in the Floridaland video piece, which made me think in contrast to this phrasing by June Jordan "We live accessible to love according to the language we invent", both evoking this analysis that we embody and inflict within the basis of our language use, how do you utilize or subvert language in your visual work?
AJH: The way I use the idea of mind was thinking about memory, thinking about personal history, family history, so mind was kind of a metaphor I used for memories of the past, as well as the sadness and psychic elements of memory. The orchard came from a story from my grandmother, a couple of years ago when I went to visit our farm in Tennessee, where my mom and her brother and all the cousins were born, it's a really big part of our family history, my great grandfather purchased the land. I thought my grandmother and all her siblings had also been born on that land but then a couple of summers ago she mentioned that she had been born on another farm down the road, so we drove down there to see it, and the original house is still there.
She was driving me around where they used to have their peach trees, and my grandmother said at the time they had the best peach trees in town, but unfortunately [as] in a lot of history of Black agriculture, and this still happens now, Black people are swindled out of inherited land, so there's been all these ways that land loss among black farmers and community happens. My grandmother's family ended up losing their farm and when it was about to be taken over my grandmother's older sisters killed all the peach trees because they didn't want the new owners to have them. So that language in Floridaland was me attempting to think through loss and the difficulty to sustain through all these systematic attempts to wipe out Black people and their industry. So each stanza evokes a different story or a moment like that, that brings in the beauty and the haunting.
ZA: I love the title of your show, and I am so inspired by artists who interrogate sound in ways that attempt new forms of relation, it reminded me of this Brooklyn Rail interview with Fred Moten, that referenced his description of Beauford Delaney's paintings, in which he used this striking phrase "irreducible phonic substance". Why the title "Pitch", and did the images come before this relation to sound or did the sounds inform the images or was it an intermingling for you?
AJH: The title is a three-fold title in that it's pitch meaning sound, thinking about not only the kind of ambient natural sounds of the forest but also work songs that turn into blues, and gospel, and rock and roll and how most American music comes out of Black labor if you link it far back enough. Even "Country Western", they all come from Blues and R&B which is related to gospel which is related to spirituals which is related to work songs that people engaged in to perform arduous forced labor. Also thinking about pitch as pitch blackness, the pitch-dark hours of the night where a lot of the myths and folktales especially in the Floridian context took place and also obviously thinking about pitch as a direct nod to the turpentine industry, so the show brings in those three elements all at once.
ZA: Because you are making art in and around a familial home and a lineage of land, there is inevitably this kind of archival element to the show, how did it feel to participate in this sort of archiving and simultaneity of world making?
AJH: In the work what I think I'm doing or what I hope I'm doing is interrogating the way in which land exists in a social, political, and cultural way throughout the world and throughout history, but I'm using the material and the artifacts and the memory and even spiritual sensibilities that I know and grew up with. The materials of the land are my materials, the materials of my childhood and my family and culture because those are the ones I know most intimately, but I hope that through the specificity of that what happens is what's most at stake is this grappling with the land, how land is wielded as a tool, how it is used as refuge, and all these complicated and complex ways land is used all over the world. With the archive I really try to destabilize it, I like for the viewer to never really know if something is documentary or fiction.
A lot of the footage I use is something I have documented, like with the red wolf video, its 8mm film, so it is film footage not digital, and I wanted you to feel like you were looking at an old nature documentary but then you start to see all these things that are uncanny that are more mythical and spiritual happening on this landscape. So there's always these lines of haunting and beauty, myth and memory, but there's also this reality or tangibility or documentary, or fiction and fantasy destabilizing. Because this is how history is, memory is fluid and not always linear, so I never let anything be fully documentary or fiction. I don't want it to be representative or a story of the South, or even about the South, it is just trying to figure out how do we understand all the ways the natural world around us comes into context with the material world of labor and fable, that have gotten cultures through, and how some myths are used to sustain violence in our communities. I always want the work to offer more questions than suggestions of an answer, or anything definitive, I want there to be more question marks.
Pitch was co-curated by Susan Cross and Larry Ossei-Mensah and remains on view at Mass MoCA until February 2019. Featured images from the show courtesy of the artist.