Cast and Crew

Behind the Scenes: An Interview with Alex Hamilton

There are two words I wish to address here: art and criticism. Art is defined as “producing something beautiful, especially by painting or drawing”. Briefly ignoring this extremely narrow and exclusive definition, we move on to the meaning of criticism: “pointing out faults”. If you don’t believe me – check the Oxford Dictionary.

Through the ages, the meaning and purpose of art has been argued. It has been said to have aesthetic value only; some deem it is necessary for entertainment purposes and some believe it enlightens and provides commentary on any number of things.

Art is valuable, even if it achieves only one purpose; but I believe that art that can achieve more than one purpose is what makes it a success as well – and this is what Alex Hamilton achieves. Not only does he entertain and comment on contemporary society, he inspires and brings people together – which brings me to the second word in my introduction: criticism.

As I went to meet Alex, I was ready to pounce and attack him with my questions, particularly as he was dealing with a subject that I am familiar with and passionate about: fame, celebrity and society. After my meeting with him, I came to a realisation (something which I have often thought of before); that as a citric – especially one of art – the furthest thing from my mind should be pointing out faults. Besides: who am I to criticise someone who is bringing people together.

In 2008 Alex Hamilton exhibited his new collection – entitled “Cast and Crew” – at his studio in Cape Town. This collection consisted of 1000 “hand-cut stencil portraits of the most influential popular icons to date”. The exhibition will also be opening in Johannesburg in August, with 80 new portraits in the collection.

On my way to his studio, I was armed with pen and paper, as well as my questions and Alex’s words in the press release running though my head and how I was going to challenge this man who was addressing one of my favourite themes; but the moment I entered the studio the wind was practically knocked out of me and I just stood flabbergasted. I was totally in awe and taken aback at what I found in front of me. From what I knew before going into the studio, I just expected the usual icons: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Madonna…and of course they were there, because they are important icons and represent society’s obsession with celebrities; but I was absolutely delighted to find God, Batman and Winnie-the-Pooh amongst many others.

Alex aptly describes his work as “accessible”; something which I find art often isn’t; but now Alex has created “something for everyone”. He tells me about wives who usually have to drag their husbands along to art exhibitions just to have them stand there being bored., but with Alex’s work the husbands are actually interested because they can relate to the topic at hand and also find their heroes in the collection. Alex covers such a vast variety of icons – not only the expected film stars, but legends from sport as well. Even children can join in and find the icons they love – whether it be Garfield, Heidi or Popeye. His work becomes interactive as he describes how everyone starts looking for their favourites. I was instantly on the lookout for Johnny Depp and was happy to find that Alex had dedicated two portraits to a fellow great artist. People start sharing and comparing and getting to know more about themselves and others. It is also great for educational purposes, as you learn about all kinds of people and the values and ideals attached to their names and careers. I personally think it would be a great first date, as you can learn so much from a person from just walking around Alex’s studio and experiencing his collection.

A beautiful term that Alex has coined to describe his work, is “positive nostalgia”. This relates back to people coming to the studio and seeking and rediscovering their childhood heroes. I just about leapt for joy when I found Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas and Tim Burton and William Shakespeare on my second visit; but finding Heidi, Batman and Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music brought back many early memories for me. It is also a great way to start a conversation (hence the perfect first date) as Alex and I discussed Eva Peron and discovered a mutual love for the great city of Buenos Aires.

One of Alex’s comments about his work that really stood out for me was when he described his work as democratic. He says “everyone can take part in it and it does not discriminate”. I think it is so amazing that Alex’s work underlines the ideal of our country, exemplified by the many South African icons he has also represented such as Nelson Mandela, J.M. Coetzee and even Patricia Lewis.

Alex also points out that his work is not meant to be political. He has represented political figures, but states that they themselves have became a part of pop culture. A valid point – as you are, for example, more likely to find Madiba and Che Guevara on a T-shirt than Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts.

Obsession is a key part of Alex’s collection and this is something I challenge him about. I question how society’s obsession with other people’s lives (exemplified by reality shows and trashy magazines) can be a good thing, to which he responds: “we’ve tried everything else…social issues will always be prevalent…and we’ve always been disappointed by politics”. Despite the valid point he makes, I just re-validate my passionate hatred of society’s warped obsession with fame and he says “it will probably not last (like everything else), but if we can learn from it, it will be a good thing”. And when I argue that people are more focused on celebrities’ lives than on their work he merely points out that “pop culture plays a part in our well-being, because it allows us to escape and therefore feel better about ourselves”.

This collection has been a huge commitment for Alex. It required a lot of time and dedication, but the passion for his work is so clear and inspiring. He speaks about how much he enjoyed researching all the people he has represented and to me this commitment is a sign of what this work means to him. He talks about how much he enjoys researching a new project and Alex points out the evidence as he gestures to the vast book and CD collections in his studio. He says he sometimes thinks that he had a subconscious desire to create a project that would allow him to do a lot of research and this work has perfectly fulfilled that desire.

I feel that I have barely begun to brush the surface of Alex’s work and what it contributes, but in closing I wish to return to my initial mention of art and criticism. Art is more than just something that can be beautiful – it is also something which can enlighten or entertain or both. Furthermore, I feel that my own title as critic should be changed to maybe observer or commentator, as the last thing in the world I am here to do is “point out faults”. We usually point out celebrities’ faults, Alex is here to celebrate icons and their contribution to society, I am here to celebrate Alex and the amazing power I believe his work has.

Originally published in A Look Away.

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