After both of Asia Hamilton’s parents passed away last year, she found solace in flowers. Fields of tulips and lavender painted gardens in technicolor that offered her peace during the chaos.
It was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and most businesses were closed, but nature is always open. The serenity of picking flowers inspired Hamilton to create Flower Therapy, a live flower art installation at Norwest Gallery of Art, which she owns. It’s one of countless exhibits she’s curated that solidify her as one of Detroit’s dopest Black female artists.
Hamilton is a photographer who has been on the art scene in Detroit for over 20 years. Her resume spans a diverse gamut that includes photographing rapper Lil Wayne, capturing decaying urban landscapes, and teaching photography to students in Amman, Jordan, on behalf of Dearborn’s Arab American National Museum. She also operates Photo Sensei Tours, a workshop that takes participants to some of Detroit’s most photogenic spots.
At a time in Detroit where people flock to the downtown area for art, culture and entertainment, Hamilton wanted to bring something contemporary to the neighborhood where she grew up. So, she opened Norwest Gallery of Art in the Grandmont-Rosedale area in 2018. Since then, it’s been host to a variety of art styles, from erotic to abstract. The Black woman-owned gallery stands as an incubator for emerging artists, with Hamilton serving as the mentor she felt she never had — and her dedication to art hasn’t stopped there. Her latest endeavor is hosting an artist residency in her childhood home on St. Marys Street, minutes away from the gallery.
“I want young artists to believe in themselves, because when you wait on other people to validate you, you’ll fail,” she said. “A friend once set me up with an interview (to be a photographer) at Essence Magazine, and I skipped it because I didn’t think my work was good enough. My self-esteem was so low because I had no mentors in the art world that told me my work was good.”
Hamilton has been around the block more than a few times. She worked as a curator for the DuSable Museum of African American History and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, both in Chicago. She attended the College for Creative Studies in the late ’90s, but ended up graduating from Columbia College Chicago with a degree in fine arts photography. You can see one of her famed photographic collages on the side of George Washington Carver Academy, an elementary school in Highland Park. The towering tapestry called “I Am The New Normal” blends portraits of students with landscapes and textures that surround affirming words like, “I am beautiful.”
In the early 2000s, she started an art collective called The Dopest Ethiopians, whose homebase was the former North End Studios on Grand River. That was back in the day when the side of the studio building in Detroit’s New Center area was adorned with the massive dripping rainbow of Katie Craig’s “Illuminated Mural.” Even though the mural has since been replaced, most Detroiters will remember driving by the towering blue wall bleeding with vibrant multicolored paint.
“There weren’t a lot of spaces for emerging artists coming out of college. It was like you were either already established or you weren’t, and it was tough trying to get galleries to show my work. I got frustrated with it, so I started my own art collective in North End Studios,” she said.
The collective was full of young artists who put together group shows at North End Studios and beyond. They rented space there until the building was purchased by a development company and they were forced out. Hamilton’s crew was displaced from rental studios at least three times until everyone eventually went their separate ways. From there, Hamilton decided she needed her own gallery, where she was the boss.
She was able to secure the building for Norwest Gallery of Art through a grant via the Grandmont-Rosedale Development Corporation. From getting new lighting and floors to installing a projector, the neighborhood nonprofit paid for everything Hamilton needed to get her dream gallery up and running.
Since then, Hamilton has curated a variety of shows, including Big & Abstract, featuring exactly what the name suggests — large, abstract photography and paintings — and Tinder Moments, a mixed media installation about online dating.
“Even though we got a blurb in The New York Times saying to come see it, I don’t think people really got it,” Hamilton said about the Tinder Moments show. “We had these giant penises in here that an artist made out of laser prints from all the dick pics she had received in her inbox. I thought it was great, but not everybody is ready for that type of art — not in Detroit.”
Hamilton isn’t a stranger to provocative art as Tinder Moments harkened back to her Naked or Nude show, which she put on frequently in her North End Studio days. She described it as a “nicer version” of the popular Dirty Show, although many attendees threw a fit about having to pass between two nude models to enter.
Tinder Moments was supposed to be a nod to the uncomfortable and sometimes laughable experiences many women have while using dating apps, but Hamilton said people were “more focused on the actual penises than the experience of receiving a photo of a penis in your inbox.” She wrote the show off as unsuccessful, but the discomfort that gallery goers felt mirrors what women often feel in those exact situations.
Flower Therapy, on the other hand, is one of Hamilton’s favorite exhibits that she’s put on so far. It was dedicated to her parents and others who passed away during the COVID-19 pandemic. The walls and ceilings of the gallery were decorated in live flowers to provide therapy to those dealing with grief. It also represented the temporary nature of not only life, but grief itself, which always ultimately passes.
Besides curating group shows, her main goal for Norwest Gallery of Art is to highlight primarily young artists of color.
“We’ve had white artists, Black artists and people of all nations showing,” she explained. “But when it comes to opportunities, we focus on putting people of color in those opportunities, because for so long and still to this day, white artists get those opportunities first.”
Black artists are often the minority in a vast sea of creators. Hamilton recalled one instance where she interviewed for a curator position at a luxury hotel in Birmingham. Despite the walls of the entire place being covered with contemporary art, there was not a single piece by a Black artist to be found.
That’s one of the reasons she created Womxnhouse Detroit. This exhibit saw every inch of her childhood home from the front porch to the bathtub turned into an installation by different women-identifying artists in September 2021. White hangers jutted out of a first-floor closet while an upstairs bedroom was transformed into a pulsating, red womb that made visitors feel comforted and safe.
The installations have been removed as Hamilton prepares to open the house as an artist residency. Though the art of Womxnhouse Detroit featured a diverse array of artists, the residency will be open only to women of color. It’s a way for Hamilton to “pass the torch on to the next generation.”
“Black women are nurturers, but we’re constantly being told we’re ugly, we’re fat, too ghetto, too loud, too assertive…I want to nurture and love Black artists. I needed that love, and I didn’t have it,” said Hamilton.
The residency will host two artists and two curators who will work at Norwest Gallery of Art while living at Womxnhouse Detroit for about seven months. They will also receive $6,000 in grant money, which Hamilton is in the process of applying for. The residency will culminate in another inaugural Womxnhouse installation, and Hamilton hopes to roll the application out in December.