Dell Marie Hamilton (b. 1971) is a multidisciplinary artist, writer, and independent curator. Born in New York City and raised in Boston, she has family roots in the Caribbean, Belize, and Honduras. She holds a BA in journalism from Northeastern University and an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. In 2021, Hamilton was awarded the James and Audrey Foster Prize and was part of a related three-person show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. Her artwork has been presented at the Stone Gallery and the 808 Gallery, both at Boston University; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art; and at the Clark Art, where she staged the museum’s first in-gallery performance artwork. In 2019, Hamilton’s work was the subject of the solo-show “All Languages Welcomed HERE” at Salem State University. That same year, she presented work in the 13th Havana Biennial in Matanzas, Cuba. Hamilton is a recipient of the US Latinx Art Forum’s 2021 CHARLA Fund grant, a Ford Foundation–sponsored initiative. As a curator, Hamilton worked on the celebrated “Nine Moments for Now” exhibition at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art at Harvard. She is currently engaged in a variety of research and curatorial projects at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
I spoke with Hamilton on August 25, 2022, about her process, her relationship to her work, and its presence in “Equals 6: A Sum Effect of Frank Bowling’s 5+1.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What is the role of abstraction in your work?
In terms of abstraction, it’s a couple of things. One of the things I remember from when I was developing my project for the Foster Prize at the ICA was going through my mentor’s, art historian Susan Denker’s, things. She had written a paper about Jackson Pollock, titled “Jackson Pollock: Two Figurative Alternatives.” As I was reading the paper, I thought, “Oh, I want to do a performative lecture and pretend to be her while reading this paper about Pollock!” And when I was preparing and developing that video, I remembered the way I came to performance art is actually through abstraction and through Jackson Pollock. It has to do with writer and scholar Amelia Jones, who writes about the ways in which performance art and minimalism and conceptual art are all in conversation. Jones speaks about how Pollock was embodied in his physical actions and how alternate readings of his work could be viewed as performative. Her book, Body Art/Performing the Subject (University of Minnesota, 1998), describes it as the “Pollockian performative.”
So, he’s kind of in a trance while he’s painting?
Yes, that’s how this trancelike state or process was explained by art critic Harold Rosenberg when he coined the term “action painting.” In Rosenberg’s mind, “What was to go on the canvas, was not a picture but an event.”1 The thing I think you need to consider in terms of performance art is that there are moments in which I am in a performance but I’m actually very present, so I consider myself fairly fluid while performing. As I mentioned earlier, I think my performance practice is very much in conversation with painting and very much in conversation with abstraction. There’s a way in which abstraction has freed me from the tyranny of representation.
Could you elaborate on what you mean by “the tyranny of representation”?
The thing I am deeply aware of as a Black artist making contemporary art is that much of the current practice of Black artists is really preoccupied with representation and figuration. However, for me, even though I am using my body in my performances, and I am present in my performance, there is a way in which I am always playing around with disguise and deception. I’m more interested in the slippages of representation that performance art affords me. I’m not really a draftsman—I certainly have my own way of rendering my subjects in a drawing—but I find that metaphor and abstraction make more sense to me in terms of my own brain and my own process.
What are your thoughts or reactions to the following quotes made by Frank Bowling in his essay for the “5+1” exhibition pamphlet?
It is certain that Black as art is not as readily available as Black as militant. Black, aspirationally, politically, sociologically. Black art demands the same learning, knowledge, in-touch-withness as any art. Black art is not isolated by Africanisation with its implied stagnation.
Two positive virtues of Black art: (i) an awareness of the solid canons of traditional African artistic expression and thought (which have contributed to 20th century western art); and (ii) that powerful, instinctive, and intelligent ability which Blacks have shown time and again, despite inflicted degradations, to rearrange found things, redirecting the “things” of whatever environment in which Blacks are thrown, placed, or trapped.
Following Bowling, I feel that there is this need to rearrange and find “things,” and redirect them, which is absolutely part of contemporary art. He also offers this point of Black art as being not readily available as militant or aspirational—the part where he is talking about how Black art is not isolated with Africanizations with its implied stagnation. He is absolutely right there. There’s a way in which Black artists certainly have appropriated those kinds of African aesthetic choices in terms of sculpture or visually, with kente cloth, etc. Contemporary Black artists working in the United States and globally, like Frank Bowling, are taking from all of these different kinds of historical contexts and artistic movements and familial relationships or literature and music. Artists are constantly taking in these different influences.
I think of Romare Bearden’s quote when he talks about being a whale: “I think the artist has to be something like a whale, swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything until he has what he really needs.”2 He wants to consume everything; his mouth is wide open and he takes it all in. I very much approach my practice in the same way. I’m a whale, and I’m taking a lot of things. And it comes out on the other end looking very different from what I may have started out with—and it certainly isn’t stagnant.
And, of course, the notion that Africa is stuck in one kind of particular historical period doesn’t make sense. There are a slew of incredible contemporary African artists making all kinds of interesting and important work. Black folks have always done above and beyond in every field, every discipline, to contribute to the contemporary world. But what if we could throw that all out and disrupt that history and suffering, what kind of even more beautiful, sustaining, exciting, innovating, transcendent work could we have done?
Do you think there’s such a thing as “Black Art”? While we have this conversation inspired by Frank Bowling’s work, his ideas about not putting Black artists or their art in a box comes to mind.
There absolutely is a genre of art called Black Art. That’s already a given, and there are many Black art historians as well as Black artists and curators who have spent years codifying what Black Art is. So, yes, that is absolutely a genre that I am steeped in, in all of its conventions. There’s a way in which it’s “Black Art” with a capital B and a capital A, and then there’s “art” with a small a. This connects to the idea of “low” art versus “high” art. I’m not saying these hierarchies need to be rigid, or that they are positive. Here, I think about the idea of pastiche in regards to my practice. A friend once described me as the “queen of the mashup.” So, I don’t really care about the hierarchies. In my practice, I’m interested in mixing up all of those questions.
Putting someone in a box is kind of saying a big F to them! I feel like your work is very much expressing your individuality and dismissal of the idea that art has to belong to only one category.
Yeah! I think that’s the freedom of contemporary art in general. There are always going to be art historians who are going to try to nail down art, codify it, and make it canonical so they can teach it and write about it. The problem with that is we artists are often changing the rules for our own ends and means—sort of because we have to, because we don’t want to stagnate either. So, as we are consistently changing the rules, we are thinking of new ways to create art in various media. There’s AI art, NFT art—there’s all these different ways of making in different media and genres. There are really no right or wrong answers. In terms of the idea of “wrong” art, some people may say, “Oh, this work isn’t beautiful, so how can it be art?” Beauty is besides the point. It can be used as a tool and, for me, I use it as a form of seduction. I’m always thinking about how I can make a seductive image so I draw the viewer in.
Would you say that question, “How can I make a seductive image to draw the viewer in?” is how you guide your process of work?
For me, it’s a very fluid process. There aren’t a lot of rules in my practice—my work is process-based. The process itself always feels really indeterminate. I just let the work take me wherever it wants to take me, and often I’m trying to figure out how many rules I can break.
I remember your saying in a previous conversation that you’re just trying to have the most fun that you can.
That’s absolutely right. This could be a symptom of my ADHD, but the thing I detest more than anything is boredom. If I’m not having fun while working on a project, I’m simply not interested and will walk away from it. I’ve done that numerous times. I constantly have a string of ideas, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re all good. In the midst of making work, you realize, “Oh, this isn’t really a good idea.” So, I don’t really feel proprietary toward figuring out a particular style of work. I’m just making work, and I let the work take me wherever it wants to take me.
Speaking of your work, could you talk about your current piece, Systems Won’t Save Us (Otherwise Known as Frankenstein), which is in “Equals 6” at UMass Boston?
That piece is another kind of “fuck you.” Part of the challenge with relocating my studio from Boston to New Bedford was my new commute. The drive itself was pretty exhausting, especially while I was holding down a job and working on my installation for the Foster Prize. Throughout the year, I was in the thick of it in terms of my other work requirements—my day job at the Hutchins Center focusing on curatorial projects—but I was also teaching and doing studio visits, etc. By March, I was still fairly busy and really trying to get in a rhythm of settling into my new studio space. I tend to be very sensitive to space, so I’m really aware of when things are working and are not working. I also moved around a lot as a kid, so moving for me is fairly traumatic. I was trying to get comfortable in the studio, and the issue I kept running into was that I didn’t know where to start. Sometimes that happens when you spend your whole bandwidth after finishing big projects, and you have to start over. So that was my question: How do I make this space work for me? I initially tried to work small. Sometimes if I don’t know what the answer is, I just try to work on whatever is in front of me. I tried working small, but I realized I just wasn’t in the right headspace where I could work small. This process worked for me in 2020, during those early days of the pandemic, where working small was all I could control. In New Bedford, I couldn’t do this; the space is raw, and the surface of the walls are chipboard instead of drywall.
The drive down there was also rupturing my thought process. My brain was constantly focused on traffic. It kept disrupting my rhythm of working in the studio. I was also getting tendonitis in my knees because of the long drive. Add on the inflation of gas prices, and I was done. Then I decided I would drive down on Thursday or Friday and just stay for the weekend. When I started to do that, I felt more settled in the studio. I was able to be present and put the traffic out of my head. I remembered a tried-and-true strategy: I always have a lot of torn-up collage pieces and random pieces of paper around me, so I started to go through all of those papers in different boxes, on the floor, etc. I began to look for pieces that I could start a new project with and, as I was playing on the floor, I started to see the beginning of what is now Systems Won’t Save Us.
I’m always posting on Instagram, expressing how I’m changing the piece around and working through it. I use the hashtag #hotstudiomessness because my studio and thought process are a bit messy. A friend and colleague saw one of my posts about how I was struggling with the piece and asked if I had a system, implying, “You need a system. If you have a system, it might work better.”
Does that person have ADHD? I’m guessing no?
I’m not sure if they have a learning disability, but I certainly do.
I have ADHD too, which is why I asked that!
So you know, systems in general are sometimes hostile to people who have learning disabilities, in particular because of the way systems are infused with ableism. In my case, there are a lot of folks who think ADHD isn’t a real thing. But I’m on medication and, without medication, my work wouldn’t even be where it is now. That’s the reality of it. Again, thinking in terms of systems, when my colleague gave me that well-meaning advice, I thought, “Well, their system works for them. But that makes no difference to my brain.”
I totally get that!
So, for me, this observation opened a door to thinking about systems and, how time and time again, but particularly during the pandemic, it has been revealed that the systems in place that have been used for decades are truly violent. They’re violent and opaque, and they are infused with racism, transphobia, ableism, misogyny—all of the isms. So, when I got the unsolicited advice, I simply thought, “No thank you, sir!”
Respectfully, you declined that suggestion!
Respectfully, I did decline that recommendation! So, that’s when the title, Systems Won’t Save Us, came to mind. Because my practice and process is very much about the mashup and pastiche, I started to think about that piece the way I think about most of my work: it’s kind of a Frankenstein. It’s a monster I am trying to tame. And even though I created the thing, it often feels as if it’s going to eat me alive. That’s how I think about all the pieces I’ve made. They all have their own personality. There isn’t a set of systems that I can impose on the work. I also think about the ways systems can bore the hell out of me. That’s another reason why I avoid working that way. So that’s where the title came from.
You talked so much about how you have a fluid process and approach to creating your work, so it just makes sense why a system wouldn’t necessarily be the correct way to go about your work!
Circling back to “Equals 6,” how do you think your art relates to the other artists whose work is on view in the exhibition (Steve Locke, Glenn Ligon, Julie Mehretu, Destiny Palmer, and Howardena Pindell), and how do you think your art fits in?
I am truly honored to be in a show with those other artists! I mean, I love Steve Locke. I’ve been sort of stalking him since grad school, so I love Steve. I’ve curated his work into the “Nine Moments for Now” exhibition I produced at the Hutchins Center’s Cooper Gallery. I love Julie Mehretu’s work as well. In terms of Frank Bowling, his work and my work were actually shown in the same issue of NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art (vol. 2019, no. 45). When I saw my name next to the other amazing artists who were the focus of the issue—Bowling, Charles White, Sonia Boyce, Barbara Walker, Eddie Chambers, and others—I was ecstatic!
Wow, that’s a life highlight!
Yeah! So I think “Equals 6” is a perfect context to show my work.
As we are wrapping up, I wanted to ask one more question: How would you finish this sentence? The art world needs more __________.
I would say it needs more Black and brown and Indigenous and queer and trans and disabled folk in positions of power and leadership. It needs to give marginalized artists their money and their shows and their respect. They deserve it! There is a very rich landscape of contemporary art. Artists shouldn’t have to be constantly arguing or chasing people or constantly hustling to get our work recognized and funded by institutions.
That definitely speaks to the narrative of Systems Won’t Save Us.
You have to disrupt that whole thing. You have to be supportive of artists who want to dismantle and undo all of those systems. Because if that doesn’t happen, then the art world will never be equitable or inclusive. And, certainly, in the wake of George Floyd and all of these statements around Black Lives Matter, institutions are trying to pivot so that they can finally reckon with racism. But Black artists don’t want lip service. We want you to put your money where your mouth is.
1Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” ARTnews, December 1952.
2 Romare Bearden, quoted in Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Romare Bearden in the Homeland of His Imagination: An Artist’s Reckoning with the South (Raleigh: UNC Press/ Ferris and Ferris Books, 2022), 19.
Cece Whitlock is a senior at the University of Massachusetts Boston, studying art and communications.