Studio Visits

Marvelous Dandies

Allison Janae Hamilton presents her foppish subjects in lush landscapes

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  • In “Kingdom of the Marvelous,” Hamilton references thematic elements of traditional fashion portraiture to challenge how contemporary fashion photography has characterized the black male body as a symbol of the urban street.

  • “Kingdom” dislocates bodies from predetermined landscapes, relocating them in worlds where anything is possible and characters delight in spaces that are often inaccessible to them in real life.

  • Hamilton draws from her own childhood memories—some tangible, others fantastical—as a basis for her whimsical backdrops and thematic elements. Signifiers such as taxidermy, lace, flowers, veils, tambourines, church fans and other ornaments animate these memories.

When I look at the new work of Harlem-based photographer Allison Hamilton, a series entitled "Kingdom of the Marvelous," counterintuitively I think about the folkloric tale of John Henry, the legendary steel driver who tried to prove his worth by successfully outpacing an industrial machine. Perhaps not the work itself makes me think of the story, but something she said to me during a recent studio visit: “I wanted to place black men in a setting other than the usual urban landscape where they always seem to be at odds, even struggling against it.” Like the themes in the story, Hamilton is working with the tension between masculinity and its relationship to the land the black body versus its environs.

She is inspired by her roots in the rural American South where she would see men in her family work the land.  Hamilton places her subjects in pastoral settings, not geographically identifiable but beautiful and otherworldly. In "Kingdom of the Marvelous," Hamilton is drawing on visual themes of surrealism, magical realism, and the marvelous, an aesthetic that she began developing after a recent residency at the School of Visual Arts. “Whereas the black male body is often utilized in fashion photography as a realist representation of the urban, city center, I am interested in repositioning the same body in an entirely different setting”, says Hamilton. The superhuman John Henry met his death while battling to reconcile his status in the world. Yet the men in Hamilton’s photographs, still juxtaposed against these lush landscapes, are sedate and self-possessed—lone, enigmatic figures at peace with their surroundings.

Monique Long is Curatorial Fellow at The Studio Museum in Harlem