Welcome back to another Q&A with the Friends of Fort Point Channel! This week we sat in on one of Stephen Hamilton’s Stitched into Memory workshops. Stitched into Memory is an art initiative that aims to teach traditional African textile arts to Boston youth as a celebration and commemoration of the historic and contemporary African Diaspora communities of Boston. Stephen’s workshops invite local students to embark on a creative and educational journey through the history of West African textile traditions and industries, as well as their impact on the cultures of the Americas. Ultimately, the program will culminate in an installation that will span 6’x30’ft in the lobby of Atlantic Wharf, and be composed of cotton canvas, muslin and handwoven cloth dyed in natural Indigo incorporating bead work, embroidery and other traditional arts. While students worked on their pieces, we sat down with Stephen to learn a bit more about his influences, inspiration, and hopes for the program.
What were some of your earliest inspirations and what motivated you to pursue a career in art?
When I think about my earliest memories about art and what really inspired me, I often think back to a couple of experiences growing up in Roxbury. My mother used to go to Nubian Notion in Dudley Square. There was this giant book of prints there that had a lot work by a lot of different black artists, especially black artists that live and work in Boston. Just growing up there, there were a ton of these amazing murals in my neighborhood that were done by Paul Goodnight, David Chandler and Gary Rickson. I just grew up in an area that was so infused with art. But it wasn’t just really interesting art, it was artwork that had a very strong black pride aspect to it, which became really important to me. They weren’t just things that were really beautiful. It was art that addressed the cultural heritage of the people living in the area. Those were some of my earliest exposures to art.
When I got into high school and I started thinking more critically about the artwork I was making, that was a theme that really came up a lot, because I felt like that was very important to the space that I was in and something that was really lacking in the arts education and the academic world that I was a part of. I grew up seeing all this stuff in my neighborhood but once you go into school, that stuff isn’t talked about or focused on. It was something that was really important to me to research and to look at because it was something that didn’t appear in the academic arena that I was in. So that has been a continued theme for my work as well as one of the reasons why I’m doing this specific project.
When/how were you first introduced to African textile arts？
I’ve done a lot of research on the art and architecture of precolonial Africa. Textiles are a huge part of that because they serve such an important function not only in everyday life but also in issues of economics, trade, and religious life. I was first exposed to resist dyeing when I was in college. I took a class on surface design on fabric and I became more interested in learning about these specific techniques as they apply to African textiles. Then I began learning about Nigerian artists such as Nike Okundaye. That’s when I first learned about her art centers and her work. And later, when I had the opportunity to travel, I went to the Nike Center for Art and Culture and studied textile arts and wood carving for 9 months. That gave me a much more intimate knowledge of those art forms in that specific area. What we’re doing with the students is a very similar things to what I was doing there. It teaches you patience, since you have to be very patient working on it. When you’re working with hand-spun yarns, the threads break very often and with dyeing, it’s a very time intensive process.
Tell me a bit about your involvement with Artists for Humanity.
I worked for Artists for Humanity for five years and was a mentor there. I also worked as a coordinator for apprenticeship-making. I was responsible for new participants and facilitating their learning. I also did some college prep work while I was there, helping students put together portfolios for college. It was an amazing experience and was really rewarding.
Did your time with AFH help inspire you to create this program?
I loved working with students at AFH and I thought that the work that I was doing was something that was very important, specifically for youth of African descent. So when I started the first iteration of this project which wasn’t focused on traditional arts but just focused on learning Yoruba culture and philosophy and talking about it through painting, I took about 15 participants from Artists for Humanity and we met every Sunday to learn about Yoruba art and culture and create art about it. So being at AFH very much inspired me to be like “okay, this is very much something I can just do on my own time that I can facilitate myself.”
What’s your ultimate goal for Stitched into the Memory?
What I really want to do is to help expose people to these arts under the Americas, specifically youth of color and youth of African descent. My main goal is to be able to revive these arts. I want people to have this exposure to tie and dye traditions, to weaving, to embroidery and all of these other art forms that were very much important in West Africa and in some places still are, and to be able to use this as a way of not only learning about African art and culture but also learning about the relationship these arts have to the African Diaspora and how these arts can be tool for healing and reclamation of identity. I also hope to make us reconsider the way in which we think about arts education. When you think about arts education you’re usually thinking about art forms that are validated by western institutions, so you’re thinking about painting, figure drawing. We’re approaching art from a very different standpoint. These art forms in West Africa were very much applied art forms but they were also very fine art forms. I want to encourage people to think about ways in which you can think about art other than the established western ideas about what art is and what art can be, and thinking about how you can mix the two together.
All photos courtesy of Stephen’s Stitched into Memory blog
To see more of Stephen’s work, visit his website. Can’t wait to see the final installation? Let us know in the comments below. Or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to stay in the loop with Friends of Fort Point Channel and sign up for our newsletter here.
Christine Rowley is the Marketing and Social Media Intern for Friends of Fort Point Channel and a current junior at Northeastern University.