Sweet Milk in the Badlands
Allison Janae Hamilton
Allison Janae Hamilton’s work originates from the place where the intangible and everyday balance carefully between the romantic and the uncomfortable built into the Southern cultural understanding. In this fragile balance of meaning and aesthetic, romantic forestry and vintage nostalgia are contrasted with the eeriness of masquerade and animal skulls. This contradiction is exactly what makes the South, and Hamilton’s work, so complex. Beneath the beautiful allure of strangeness lies the subtle undertow of violence and loss.
Hamilton’s photographs are further illuminated by the sculptural accompaniments made to her images. Every detail and facet of the space is hand-sculpted, sketched, staged, and photographed to create a beautiful, but unsettling atmosphere of a dream or a bittersweet memory.
Hamilton’s work isn’t just romance and loss. There is a strong sense of place that grounds all of her imagery—a sense of ownership, of identity and of comfort. The figures are dear friends and family. She photographs in places she loves. The supporting props are lovingly stitched together with a dignity and pride that comes from purposeful representation. And in the edges of each photograph lies the anticipatory gesture of an epic adventure.
Read on to hear more about what motivates Hamilton’s work, what she loves about the South, and what she loves about storytelling.
COURTNEY SIMCHAK: Your photographs and your installations toggle an indefinite line between the rural South and the mundane elements of everyday life. Can you talk more about these elements within your art practice?
ALLISON JANAE HAMILTON: For me, it’s more about traversing a line between the fantastic or mythical and the routine or mundane elements of everyday life, while the rural South operates as a consistent touchstone. I’m curious about what these two elements—the thrilling and the everyday—can uncover or expose. The South, I think, is as much tangible and geographic as it is imaginary and mythic. And my work explores these two related conditions and expresses a curiosity about their limits and about the ways that they blend together.
I choose to work with aesthetic signifiers that I had around me growing up. My work uses a visual language that relates to the South, but people from all backgrounds tell me they feel connected to the work.
SIMCHAK: For an artist who pulls inspiration from fairytales, folk tales, and myth, it’s not surprising that the forest would be such a prevalent landscape within your photographs. I think it’s this element that brings a kind of dreaminess to your work. It evokes this sense of remembering something that you know is important, but can’t specifically recall. Can you talk more about the landscapes and locations where you shoot your photographs? Do you have a history with any of the locations you have shot photographs at?
HAMILTON: I do have a history with many of the locations. I shoot a great deal in Western Tennessee, which is where the maternal side of my family is from. Our family’s farm, where I spent pretty much every summer as kid, is there in the rural flatlands. My family’s land in Tennessee is the backdrop of a good amount of my work, especially my latest videos. I was raised in Florida and shoot there often as well. I’m in love with the landscape of North Florida, especially. The swamps, the live oaks, the Spanish moss, the alligators, and the wild horses—they are all a big part of my work. It’s important to for me to make work in the locations that have tangible meaning to me.
SIMCHAK: The rural South is a complex landscape to work from—spatially, historically, psychologically, and aesthetically. I feel that your work is definitely built from this interaction, but I do not think it is rooted solely in the Southern identity—so many elements of your work include personal experience, a modern expression, surrealism, and a sense of self that expands far outside of just a geographical self. Do you find it difficult to navigate in making work that is informed by the South without becoming consumed by it?
HAMILTON: I don’t really mind if my work was considered to be consumed by the South. The South is what I think about the most. I’m okay with that. But issues happening in the rural American south relate significantly to things going on in a number of places. I was just in rural northern Spain, and some of the communities there are dealing with similar issues around land loss, population loss, sustainability, and other issues that my family in the South talks about. Because I’m a southern person and I choose to work with aesthetic signifiers that I had around me growing up, my work uses a visual language that relates to the South, but people from all backgrounds tell me they feel connected to the work because it speaks certain concepts that they may be familiar with. I simply start from what I know. My work is not meant to be documentary, although some of my photographs are “straight” landscapes. It’s not meant to be historical, though I sometimes make work in sites that have particular historical meaning or use artifacts that are important for a particular time.
SIMCHAK: Do you use models or do you photograph friends and family when composing your photographs? Does your family recognize any of the familiar elements of your childhood or family history showing up in your artwork?
HAMILTON: Almost all the figures in my work have been friends or family. I’ve just started working with my mother, who is appears in “Brecencia and Pheasant” and in some of my video work. She’s created her own character, Brecencia, who has specific tendencies, habits, and other characteristics. She named the character, Brecencia, spontaneously while we were making a video piece together in North Florida.
I use my own body to portray some of the characters as well, such as in “Scratching at the wrong side of firmament.” I’m also the figure riding the horse in “The Land of Milk or Honey,” but, like the others, it’s a character I’m portraying rather than myself.
SIMCHAK: Your most recent show, “Sweet Milk in the Badlands” incorporates photography and installation/sculptural aspects to create one encompassing experience. What draws you to photography and installation as your medium of choice? Does the process between composing a photograph or designing an installation differ or are they more of an extension of one another?
HAMILTON: Photography was my first medium. I’ve been making photographs in the rural south since I was a kid visiting my maternal family’s farm in Tennessee every summer and most springs to help with planting and harvesting. A few years ago I started bringing some of the elements or artifacts from inside of the photographs outward into the exhibition space (tambourines, antlers, linoleum tiles, etc.), and that began my first foray into working with objects. That eventually grew into full on installations, which also grew into a sculpture practice. For example, I now hand make tambourines out of steel that I shape and weld. I photograph them and use them to build installations. My practice of working with taxidermy has also grown from using antlers as headpieces to working with life-sized animal carcasses and taxidermied forms.
The process of composing a photograph and designing an installation are, at least for me, pretty similar. I start with an idea or some kind of narrative and look for ways I can flesh that narrative out in form. I’m a collector of objects, whether they are objects I find or make. I’m never sure if the object will wind up in a photograph or in an installation first. Sometimes the object will be my jumping off point; I’ll try to feel out its narrative in a more experiential way as I go along. But whether or not it’s a photograph or an installation, some combination of narrative and object or material is usually part of the beginning. In a way, it’s hard to separate everything out.
SIMCHAK: How do fairy tales, mythology, family lore, and sermons inform your work? What do you think is the most important thing about how these aspects inform ones art and identity?
HAMILTON: They operate as source material in a way because I use them as a starting point. I start with some type of narrative, whether it’s from an archival photograph or a hymn, folk tale, or myth, or even a family story. I use those materials that I am connected to and that are in some way part of larger cultural or historical southern narratives to think through different concepts like sustainability, loss of land, loss and transformation of language, histories of violence, authorship of history, and others. Using folklore, family stories, and myth also speaks toward the way that the South is created, framed, and re-created in the world of the imagination.
SIMCHAK: What was your favorite story when you were little and which character did you most identify with?
HAMILTON: The first book that I can remember making an impression on me as a kid was “The Hobbit.” I fell in love with the idea of the epic or the long adventurous tale. If I could trace any part of what I’m doing now to something I read when I was a child it would be those early fantasy novels. Also, “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Anything of that sort. Today, I’m still influenced by literature—Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Octavia Butler, etc.
Allison Janae Hamilton (b.1984) is a visual artist working in photography, sculpture, installation, and taxidermy. Hamilton received her PhD in American Studies from New York University and is a current MFA candidate in Visual Arts at Columbia University. Her artwork has appeared in publications such as Transition Magazine, Women and Performance, Arte Al Limite, NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art, and Artforum.