about the Artist
Ben Hamburger is a painter, community artist, and educator born and raised outside of Washington, DC. Working within the convergence of visual art and social engagement, Hamburger creates artwork, facilitates workshops, and collaborates with diverse communities around the world. His work is driven by his belief in the universality of art and its potential to find meaning in complex situations.
Hamburger holds a bachelor’s degree in visual arts from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida and a master of fine arts degree in community arts from Maryland Institute College of Art. During his undergraduate career, he studied art history and oil painting at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy. In 2011, Hamburger moved to Asia where he pursued painting and taught in diverse settings in Thailand as well as underrepresented tribal regions in northern India. After returning to the United States, Hamburger resettled in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he was immediately inspired by the vibrancy of the city. While in New Orleans, he taught in an array of schools, art centers, and cultural institutions. He is currently represented by several galleries in the city, and his artwork was selected and purchased for the permanent collection of the city of New Orleans.
In 2014, Hamburger painted murals and led visual art workshops at a shelter for victims of sexual abuse trauma in Cochabamba, Bolivia as artist in residence with the non-profit organization, Sustainable Bolivia. In 2016, Hamburger served as the community arts facilitator for Baltimore City College’s Refugee Youth Project where he developed curricula, led classes, and organized exhibitions for several groups of refugee youth in the Baltimore area.
Hamburger has been the recipient of several grants and fellowships and is a funded member of Alternate ROOTS, an arts and activism organization in the southern United States. Hamburger has exhibited his artwork in group and solo exhibitions nationally and internationally. His work has been featured in Tampa Bay Times, Baltimore Sun, public radio station WYPR, Baltimore Style, Voice of America, and the Smithsonian’s online publication, What It Means to be American. Hamburger currently lives and works in Carrboro, North Carolina.
sharon p. holland (spH)
ben hamburger (bh)
spH: I am so honored to be sitting down with you to talk a little bit about your work and what inspires you, what motivates you. Tell us first a little bit about yourself, and more importantly what you want south readers to know about you.
bh: Cool. Well, I’m so glad to be featured in the journal, and I’m really excited to be involved with the project in general. I am from Maryland and have been living in the South in different places for the past ten years or so, from Florida to New Orleans to Baltimore, which is technically the South, to here in Carrboro, North Carolina, where I recently moved. I am a painter, art teacher, and community artist.
spH: For our readers and for the scholars who aren’t necessarily art historians or folks who do work in material culture, what’s a community artist?
bh: Part of my artistic practice is engaging with people in whatever location I am in. So sometimes I do that through teaching workshops or collaborative art-making experiences or just going out and talking with people and meeting people in ways that inform my work. So, to me, when I say I am a community artist, there is some degree of social engagement that influences my process. And, like I said, that has taken a lot of forms and shapes throughout my life, but I think that my sense of place is really important to my work and getting to know and working with people around me is a really important part of getting to know where I am and what it’s all about. So that kind of sharing of the creative process is what community art is to me.
spH: It reminds me, thinking of the painting itself and the situation of flight, from my particular vantage point of a person of African descent, there is a grateful feeling of flight in terms of viewing that painting. And the sense of the mooring that the Confederacy has here. The whole aspect of the painting-the view from the back of the truck-the 18 wheeler to be more precise-the choice of color. Tell me how you came to this. Tell us a little bit about how you came to the painting itself, but also readers might not know, it’s part of a series of paintings, right? I find that fascinating.
bh: It is part of a larger series of work based around the removal of Confederate statues, and so I guess I’ll start off talking about that and more specifically the painting itself. To me, this removal of Confederate monuments is not separated from the cultural landscape itself. So, when I get to a new place, part of what I do is go outside and start painting what I see. I drive around, talking to people. These monuments have been such an integral part of the landscape in the places that I’ve been and their removal is such a powerful part of that landscape as well because it’s such a topic of conversation, symbolically and physically. Its removal affects the place and my sense of place. And so immediately when I relocated to North Carolina in this kind of academic hub of the South, I’m thinking about this place and the South in general and the removal of these monuments just seemed to be such a prevalent subject in my mind, and I felt the need to address it in my work and painting. So, it started off with me just watching videos of the monuments being removed, the different ways in which they were taken down-and me thinking about this and pondering it and beginning to paint images of it. As I started painting images of monuments being taken down in New Orleans, in Durham, and eventually in Baltimore where this Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monument that’s depicted in the painting was removed, I started to learn more about the different cases and instances of their being taken down, the historical implications, the cultural implications, but really, what it means to me in more abstract senses as well. So, I’m comparing and contrasting the removal of the monuments to different historical events. Looking at my paintings and then thinking about their place within art history and what they could potentially mean and what they could potentially be doing. There is so much to think about there.
spH: Tell us a little bit more about the abstract. You’ve been speaking about the concrete, but how does the abstract function for you, because art is a rendering of the thing, not necessarily the thing itself, right?
bh: Right. Well, I think the fact that . . . so let’s go back to the specific painting here: Lee/Jackson flee the night. This was one of four monuments in Baltimore, MD that were taken down in the middle of the night without any announcement.
spH: Whoa . . . they were like, we’re going to do this, son!
bh: The mayor just decided they were all going to come down that night. This was right after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia [August 2017]. And only a few people who happened to be out at 3:00 a.m. in the streets saw what was happening and the next day they were just gone. What does that mean that these monuments of white supremacists, of advocates for slavery that were meant to show the power and the nobility of the Confederacy, are being torn down and then skirted off during in the middle of the night. Tied down to trucks and just . . . peace out.
spH: That’s intense. You wake up the next morning and you’re like, “oh my God.”
bh: It’s super intense. Thinking about that in the context of why they were put up: to uphold these structures of white supremacy and make these statements that the Confederacy was noble, and they still have a strong hold on this land.
spH: You are so right that the claim is on this place. I love how you say that because so many activists and scholars have been saying that this thing stakes a claim to this particular place throughout time, until its removal in which this space can be reclaimed for community again. Right now, this space belongs to a very narrow set. I like the focus in your response and the truth telling. We have so long been explaining away their negative presence among us, that it’s almost hard to get people to understand what they mean in any real sense. They say, “Oh it doesn’t mean that” or “It was a gift once.” I think the events of Charlottesville pointed out that we don’t all share that same knowledge.
bh: That crystallizes things in a lot of ways, for sure. When we talk about the painting, them fleeing the night, that draws the comparison to slavery and slaves having to flee in the night. So, by my depicting the Confederate monument fleeing the night, I hoping to emphasize this huge shift in our culture and in our collective understanding of the power that these monuments had and their removal has in the places where they existed.
spH: What do think their removal is for-is that removal for us, or for future generations? Is it both?
bh: I don’t know. I can’t help but think about my own identity when I’m making this work as a white cis-gendered male living in the South. Part of the way I’m thinking about those questions is through the lens of a white person, and the removal of these monuments brings up these important conversations in white households and white gatherings and might be really uncomfortable and maybe have not been touched upon. I think there’s so much repression in white communities in the South and so much that’s not discussed. Now that this is happening and these monuments are being removed, you have to talk about it. You have to acknowledge it. Does it piss you off? Why does it piss you off? What does that mean to you? You have to reckon with what it means to other people. The removal seems like a small thing, but it’s forcing people to have these difficult conversations and to be aware of and acknowledge things that maybe they haven’t before.
spH: Ah, that difficult conversation. I think we don’t know what our investments are until they are challenged. I feel that so much has come to the fore since the election of November 2016. Things changed rapidly and somewhat spectacularly in this country. We came up with the idea for this special issue way before the [Presidential] election cycle began. We were like, there’s a lot going on in the South-we have HB2, there’s the situation in Tennessee and stuff going on in Mississippi and campus carry in Texas. Then things took a radical turn in November, or what people perceived as a radical shift, because for some-and I am of two minds about this as some of us were like, “Now you live in the world the rest of us have been living in for a long time”-even apart from that truth, another truth began to circulate. I find in the resistance to the removing the statues both on UNC’s campus and elsewhere and the discussions of that resistance-I find a quality of holding-onto-ness in whiteness that is amazing. People who would not have articulate in any way, shape, or form a certain allegiance to or relationship with the monuments are suddenly and mysteriously invested in rule of law and in order. The removal itself has brought up a whole bunch of attachments that are not surprising to me from an intellectual standpoint but that are surprising to me from a personal standpoint.
bh: Well, these statues coming down are the physical and tactile embodiment of this anxiety over white America-it’s what drove Trump’s election. Let me go back to the abstract qualities to their removal. You know the statues being taken down isn’t going to end racism or oppression by any means, but what it does is crystallize some of those conversations and some of those opinions that need to fleshed out and discussed. Just like you were saying, the monuments themselves are this symbol of this anxiety and of our country changing and the fight to maintain these symbols is a lot of what needs to be discussed.
spH: I totally agree with you. I know we focused quite a bit on the painting that is showcased in the journal itself. But if you’d like to, I’d like you to speak, since it is part of a series, aesthetically to your art process in the series. And also speak to other work in the series that you’d like to focus on in conjunction with the piece that our readers are so fortunate to view.
bh: It is interesting how this painting, this imagery, and this process have made me so intellectually devoted to this subject. How much just painting these images . . . they are pretty simple . . . they are just images of what’s actually been happening, but through that process of painting them and then analyzing them, I’ve thought about this in different ways and so much more than I would have otherwise. That is a huge part of the process-just looking and thinking about it throughout the painting process. I’ve been watching the news and then watching the news again on YouTube and taking screenshots of video stills and pulling them down and trying to look at ways to create interesting compositions. All are from places I have relationships with. Statutes have come down in places like Texas and Alabama, but I’ve really chosen to focus on places where I know the statues, where I spent time around the statues. And in places where I can reflect on when statues didn’t mean anything to me-I did not question their presence whatsoever, they were part of the cultural landscape, I didn’t glance at them twice. And for me, in their removal, they are clearly so meaningful. So, this process has clearly affected me in this way. And I have been using these video stills to create the paintings, and throughout the process, I absolutely wanted to emphasize their removal, the process of their removal, not the statues themselves. So, you see in this painting and the other ones, the bands that bind them to the truck or that are pulling them up are brightly colored, vibrant bands that are showing the power of the present day and the power of the activist communities that have helped make this possible and sort of the vibrancy of where we are right now. And aesthetically I honed in on those and tried to paint them in a way that is textured and captivating but also celebratory. And that’s subtle-I think. Because these paintings don’t necessarily take a stance politically; they are sort of just showing what has happened. But, I still want to interject in some way where I am at with all of this without halting a conversation. So, I hope that that’s done to some degree through the palate that I choose and the moment in time that I choose to freeze and paint and capture on canvas.
spH: The first thing I immediately thought of when I saw a slide of Lee and Jackson was Bree Newsome, who took down the Confederate flag in front of the South Carolina state building with the help of a phenotypically white cis-gendered male. They put the statute back up, just to take it down a week later, just to prove a point. It was a historical moment for me, and we know that the circumstances surrounding the Durham statue were different-it was toppled rather than removed as opposed to the ones in Baltimore. I think that I’m probably much more interested in the removal aspect. The mayor of Baltimore would be considered to have an activist agenda, right? People would say, “That’s activism, you can’t do that, because you have to stay within of the law.” But why be a mayor, if you are not the law? Sometimes ordinary citizens position themselves as the law. One of the things that has been startling to me is the extent to which the debate around Silent Sam’s removal at UNC has focused on the law. But I find that to be so incongruous in a state where the flagship university cannot remove a symbol that is the only symbol of its kind across the system and in a state where the civil rights movement was kicked off. This sense that the law shouldn’t be challenged . . . we are in North Carolina where we have great precedents for acts of removal and contestation. And so, I wonder if you’ve been in touch with any of the activists in the community here or if you’ve been present in several, especially in August and September 2017, events across the state-Chapel Hill, Greensboro, and elsewhere-about the removal of the statues in particular.
bh: Yes! So, I went to the protest for the removal of Silent Sam.
spH: The Tuesday before classes began in September.
bh: Yeah. I met some interesting people there and was glad to be there and see everything that was going on. I actually tried to reach out to several other activist organizations in the area regarding the images that I’m making and to see if they can be of use to them somehow. And I think that’s an important part of this. The painting I did of the Confederate soldier’s monument in Durham after it was torn down was the only one that I showed locally in the place where it happened, thus far. And so, it received different reactions from the other ones and really interesting ones.
spH: In that particular show, you had three paintings up there?
bh: Yes. This was the “Unbound, Documentary as Art” show at The Carrack that the paintings were featured in. The whole time I’ve been thinking of how my identity plays into this and what exactly I’m trying to do. The paintings were received overall very well, but I think there was also a sense among some folks like, “Who is this guy? We’ve been fighting for the removal of these monuments and we were with the activists who tore down the monument in Durham and this has been our lives for the past several months. Who is this guy painting them?” I think that’s a legitimate response to have, especially if you’re so invested. So, that’s something that I’m thinking about a lot. What I’m hoping is that these paintings do commemorate the activism and the hard work that all of the folks and organizations have been putting in to making these changes happen. I hope that the act of the painting preserves and commemorates the work that they have done. I’ll go back to my thinking about what these mean in white circles, and they are really celebrating the toppling of white supremacy, and I think in any place that’s what I want the paintings to be doing.
spH: So, these paintings are joining in, in many ways. It reminds me of Emmett Till’s mother, knowing that the press would be there, deciding that this particular act was not going to go unnoticed . . .
spH: . . . the way in which my son died, is not going to go unnoticed by a populace. And you are right, the Durham painting is very different in many ways from the Baltimore painting . . .
bh: When it’s shown here.
spH: Right! In many ways that’s what art that focuses on activism is does, it can be . . . really complicated. That particular photo-of Emmett Till’s casket-became iconographic and it circulated all over the globe. In the time of social media, it’s almost as if photos are ephemeral-they come and go with the news cycle. Have you thought about that at all in terms of your work in relationship to the video stills and in relation to the ephemeral nature of other forms of capture?
bh: Yes, I have quite a bit. But, I want to go back just a second, because a third layer of all of this work is about activist art and about the position of an artist in movements like this, and those conversations are ones that I’ve been thinking about and that I want to engage with. So, for that reason, I titled the painting of the Durham statue, “Open Casket.”
spH: I forgot about that when I was making the reference to Till.
bh: That’s a reference to Dana Schutz’s 2016 painting of Emmett Till’s open casket titled the same thing. There was an explosive response to that painting and how she was commodifying black pain and how she wasn’t in a position to paint that imagery as a white woman and as a woman who has a lot of power and influence in the art world. It was shown in the Whitney Biennial, and it was largely protested. And so here I am painting this subject matter, which in a large way, black struggle is part of the power that facilitated their removal, but how is what I’m doing different from that or how is it the same? So these are conversations I want to have. But the way that I feel it is different is that these paintings to me show black power-show the force and the love that it takes to fight white supremacy-and it shows, rather than a black figure disembodied and ruined, it shows a symbol of the Confederacy ruined and crumbled. And so, I’m shifting from a deficit to an asset.
spH: Well, the singularity to the other painting [the Schutz painting]. I remember that controversy and I think you’re absolutely right about the difference. Single images sometimes . . . I’ve always thought about diptychs and triptychs in art, and I’ve been involved with and dealt with artists for a very long time as a collector-I hate to say that word-I like to say as a curator of beautiful material objects that live among me and my family for a long time for us to think about. One of the things that scholars often talk about . . . in the conference circuit . . . is whether or not images of black suffering produce the circumstances for black freedom, or do those images complicate and even deny black freedom. And the way in which the series that you’ve created seems to take away that disembodiment. It is, to me, a definite shift and the reason why I found your work so captivating. It is a shift away from the way in which whiteness captures blackness for itself.
bh: Yeah. That’s what I would hope, and again, that’s something that came up completely after I started painting the series. My initial impulse was like: this is happening, this is affecting my sense of place, I got to start painting this. And then these deeper and deeper questions and internal conversations have been coming up, and that’s absolutely one of them.
spH: This is perfect for this issue of crisis : opportunity because there is an opportunity to say something but that opportunity can also be turned into a crisis of having said it. I feel like being in that complex place, trying to work from that complex place is what’s so important about this moment . . . I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is a vulnerability here and I’m saying that I appreciate that and I’m also not sure what to say about that. One of the things we try to do at south is we try to ask questions-and we ask questions that must be asked, even though we don’t necessarily know the answer to them. In many ways, that’s part of our job at south. What I’m trying to say is that I love that space of contestation-the questions asked and as yet unanswered.
bh: Well thank you, that’s exactly it. I’m hoping to create that space because I don’t know the definitive answer either about my work. Even in the way I’ve titled them. I’m saying, let me know what you think and let’s talk about it. I know this work fits within certain social issues that art has been bringing up these days.
spH: Almost everyone is talking about this post-election moment where folks are saying, “Get your people.” It’s a Crunk feminist collective moment. Everybody better stand in line because it’s real now, right? If we ever had any question about the world we live in, we don’t need to have the same questions anymore, we need a different set of questions. The most powerful thing about this moment is the necessity for constant uncomfortability.
spH: And I feel like anyone who is trying to kind of stay comfortable isn’t working hard enough. And we are all called to do some work. Push our students harder; tell our family, “No!” Whatever it is we do together to celebrate, it’s not going down the way the same way at all . . . we need some new traditions. I think that’s one of the key words that strikes me. The location of crisis : opportunity references this moment in black intellectual life in the early part of the twentieth century. But, the place of tradition must shift and part of the conversation about moving on from these confederacies has been all about tradition. At least from what Trump would call “the other side.” I feel that these vestiges of tradition are also part of liberal talk about our present moment.
bh: Yeah, definitely. I think this presidency and all of this subject matter has already shaken up people’s traditions. The Trump supporter vs. the non-Trump supporter at the Thanksgiving dinner table has been a motif since last year; that’s messed up plans and estranged family members. I think that it’s important that questions like the ones revolving around these Confederate monuments continue to be integrated into those occasions and those traditions we have with our family members.
spH: Well this has really been such an enriching conversation-I really want to thank you. But, before we go, I really want to ask: is there anything you want to say?
bh: I think I really just . . . I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to talk because this is work that I’m not sure about. I don’t know the direction that I’m going to take this in the future. I don’t know how this subject matter is going to manifest itself in my paintings down the line or how I’m going to interject more of myself artistically or pull back from this. But this body of work and the conversations revolving around monuments and visual culture highlight the power of symbols, how our shared cultural landscapes are developed, and the need for great art education. Who will be the ones in the future to make our new monuments? And this is what it’s all about for me, just talking about the issues within these paintings, revolving around the work itself and my place in doing it. So, navigating this work is all a big question and I’m really glad for it to be a part of south.