scorecardresearch Skip to main content

An exhibition wraps Black Bostonians with the wonders of pre-colonial Africa

"Heirloom" features collaborative works by photographer Stacey S. Hamilton and artist Stephen Hamilton. The two are cousins, and they put out a call on social media for Black models.Stacey S. Hamilton/Stace.H. Photography

Images of George Floyd’s murder have brought a reckoning about racial injustice. Cellphone videos of police violence toward Black Americans have played a crucial role — this week, in Kenosha, Wis., it was Jacob Blake.

It’s soul-sapping to witness. What does seeing this kind of brutality do to Black children?

“Heirloom,” a collaboration between Boston artists Stacey S. Hamilton and Stephen Hamilton at Medicine Wheel Productions’ Spoke Gallery, offers an antidote. Stacey is a portrait photographer; Stephen is a painter, textile artist, and mixed-media artist, and the two are cousins.

The Hamiltons put out a call on social media for Black models. Local artists, scholars, and healers responded. A community came together.


Photographer Stacey S. Hamilton and artist Stephen Hamilton collaborated on this portrait of Shawn Phillips.Stacey S. Hamilton/Stace.H. Photography

Stephen Hamilton employs traditional techniques such as weaving, dyeing, and carving, drawing on the visual language of precolonial Africa to tap into ancestral cosmologies. The subjects of these portraits appear against radiantly dyed fabric backdrops, garbed in indigo robes, wearing resplendent headdresses. At the same time, Stacey Hamilton’s photographs lucidly capture personalities of today’s Black Boston.

Steeped in African designs and patterns, the images bring to mind the works of 20th-century painter John Biggers, for whom the motifs and cosmologies of Western Africa were foundational. Biggers’s celebration of African matriarchies resonates especially in the one painting here, “Owners of the Earth,” depicting a triumvirate of women — Chanel Thervil, Collette “Lotus” Brown, and Chalaun Lomax.

In her individual portrait, Thervil, holding a sprig of greenery, sits in profile. Her face moves in our direction and her eyes slide past us. She looks regal, young, and sly, a princess planning to go rogue.

Photographer Stacey S. Hamilton and artist Stephen Hamilton collaborated on this portrait of Chanel Thervil.Stacey S. Hamilton/Stace.H. Photography

Shawn Phillip steps forward onto a low stool, holding an ose Sango, a dance wand and ceremonial axe used by priests worshiping Sango, a Yoruba spirit. His posture, arms akimbo, looks ceremonial. His expression is solemn, summoning the proud spirit of his ancestors, channeling their gods.


“Heirloom” deftly straddles the immediacy of portraiture and the eternity of iconography. Taking on the mantles of their forebears, these women and men celebrate the strength of their community. It’s a necessary exhibition right now, and a balm.


At Spoke Gallery, Medicine Wheel Productions, 110 K St., 2nd Floor, South Boston, through Sept.10. 617-268-6700,

Cate McQuaid can be reached at Follow her on Instagram @cate.mcquaid.