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Boston artist connects African tradition to the present day

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Boston artist connects African tradition to the present day
Boston painter and illustrator Stephen Hamilton portrays people he has met in his travels as Yoruba gods and goddesses. (Photo: Photo: Courtesy Stephen Hamilton)

The Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury is displaying a solo exhibit of work by Boston painter and illustrator Stephen Hamilton. Titled “Black Gods Live: Work of Stephen Hamilton,” the show transforms people Hamilton met in his travels into deities of Yoruba spiritual traditions, religious sensibilities developed in Southwestern and North Central Nigeria.

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Hamilton’s interest in Yoruba spirituality bloomed during his artist-in-residence collaboration with the Nike Center for Art and Culture in Nigeria. He particularly was drawn to the elders of the village structure, whom he reimagined as priests and priestesses — agents of a spiritual and culture community that both exists in Africa and within the African diaspora.

In a predominantly blue painting, Hamilton depicts a woman as the maternal goddess Iya Mapo. Unlike the Venus figures typical in the Western European tradition, Mapo is an older woman. She sits casually with her legs spread underneath her skirt and a content smile on her age-worn face. The lush colors of the canvas are weaved into intricate patterns and textures with traditional skills such as Adire indigo dyeing. Floral block prints on the figure’s arms and in the background speak to African textile designs.

“The idea of the works is that they deal with ancient subject matter, but these are real people that you might see on the street,” says Hamilton. “There’s a lot of fetishized images of black suffering. This is a narrative of empowerment.” Because his paintings depict regular people as deities, Hamilton’s work also speaks to a cultural divinity, a sense of peace and wisdom that reverberates through every member of the Yoruba clan.

Hamilton graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2009. Since then he has mentored young artists in Artists for Humanity and at Art à la Carte. His work has been exhibited in galleries around Boston and at City Hall.

The celebration of the elderly is a powerful theme in “Black Gods Live.” It points to the wisdom and strength that can be drawn from familiar faces in black communities, contemporary people you see every day. The figures in the exhibit are relaxed, approachable and real. It might be a grandmother at church on Sunday or a man waiting for a bus at Dudley Station. “It’s a way of exploring divinity in relation to the black body,” says Hamilton. The culture of the past fuses with the present, painting a bridge from Africa to Boston in indigo blue and fiery orange.