It’s perhaps Columbus’ most exclusive creative club, and in early September, it held its first meeting. The city’s two living MacArthur Fellows, writer Hanif Abdurraqib and artist Ann Hamilton, gathered at the former home of the late artist Aminah Robinson, the city’s only other recipient of the prestigious honor. What followed was an extraordinary conversation about craft, creativity, the grounding effect of Columbus and the myth of the singular genius.
“I brought you some words.”
Halfway through an intimate, 70-minute conversation with Hanif Abdurraqib, Ann Hamilton takes out a gallon-size plastic bag containing bundled strips of paper covered in text, gifting words that can be touched and held. “If you have a book, and you slice it like bread, you get this. Isn’t that beautiful?” she says. “You may find that word you need.”
Seated on a couch next to Hamilton in the living room of Aminah Robinson’s former home, Abdurraqib grins and examines the book snippets with wide-eyed excitement, fanning them out in his hand while thanking his new friend. Hamilton, a world-renowned Columbus artist, has incorporated verbal and written language into installations across the globe for decades, weaving words throughout her work in ways that call back to her love of textiles. These gifted cross-sections of books are left over from “Human Carriage,” a 2009 project at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City that found Hamilton reconstituting slices of text to form new meanings out of disparate fragments.
While representing the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1999, Hamilton whispered a coded excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address as fuchsia powder descended onto gallery walls covered in a Braille translation of a Charles Reznikoff poem. More recently, Hamilton, who retired from Ohio State University in 2021 after 20 years in the art department, created “Chorus,” a mosaic of historic texts on the walls of New York City’s Cortlandt Street subway station, which was destroyed in the Sept. 11 attacks. Her work is responsive, integrating whatever materials and mediums the site seems to require. Audio and video work coexist alongside projects with stacks of fabric and huge, billowing linens. Text and textiles intertwine.
“Ann Hamilton makes unfamiliar rooms, unfamiliar scenes, in familiar places,” Joan Simon wrote in her 2002 retrospective biography of the artist. “Hamilton is a storyteller, but one whose language is not necessarily verbal.”
Abdurraqib is a storyteller, too, and like Hamilton, he loves to play with form. While the Columbus writer has published works of poetry, music criticism, journalism and memoir, his writing is genre-fluid. In the 2017 essay collection “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us,” he weaves personal history and meditations on death into a chapter about rock band My Chemical Romance. In his 2016 poetry collection “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much,” he lets his barber’s words serve as poetry. In his latest book, “A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance,” Abdurraqib obsesses over dance marathons and Soul Train line dances “because of how many times I have leaned into someone or something and called it love,” he writes. That collection also features multiple remembrances titled “On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance,” a couple of which read as one breathless sentence littered with ampersands, like a cathartic journal entry elevated into a free-form poem. Regardless of genre, Abdurraqib’s writing is marked by a depth of feeling and a spirit of generosity that invites readers to plumb those depths along with him.
But Abdurraqib and Hamilton don’t merely share a hometown, a love of words and a penchant for pushing boundaries. They also share an honor bestowed by the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded the MacArthur Fellowship to Hamilton in 1993 and to Abdurraqib in 2021. Often referred to as the “genius grant,” the prestigious award comes with a no-strings-attached cash prize—$800,000 in 2022, paid in quarterly installments over five years. According to the foundation, the Fellows Program “is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual and professional inclinations.”
It’s no coincidence Columbus Monthly invited Abdurraqib and Hamilton to the Shepard neighborhood house that once belonged to Robinson, the only other Columbus artist to get the MacArthur grant, which she received in 2004. Robinson left her home and its contents to the Columbus Museum of Art upon her death in 2015, and after preservation and renovation, the house now serves as the site of a residency that gives Black artists the opportunity to live and work in the late artist’s home. The museum’s Deidre Hamlar, director of the Aminah Robinson Legacy Project, and Anthony Peyton Young, the current artist resident, kindly let us make ourselves at home for an afternoon.
The house is easier to walk through today than it was during Robinson’s lifetime, when artwork spilled onto every surface, lining the hallways and covering the walls, upending any notion of separation between spaces for making and spaces for living. The home itself became her art, with carved and painted doors and a mosaic kitchen floor that feels less like a walking surface than a sacred mural. Notes from previous visitors still adorn the walls. Even the blankets covering the living room couch are the same ones Abdurraqib used to sit on when visiting Robinson, gleaning wisdom from his elder.
“She’s still here. She’s with us,” Abdurraqib says, putting words to a shared feeling on this early September afternoon, sunlight drenching the room where Robinson often slept, when she slept at all.
Abdurraqib and Hamilton had never met before this long-in-the-works discussion, but you wouldn’t know it. The two were fast friends, launching into conversation while still posing for photographs, before I’d even started my recorder. The camaraderie was quick and easy as they finished each other’s sentences. They spoke about past projects and current work. They bonded over the grounding effect of working as an artist in Columbus. They shared a love of poets like Natalie Diaz and Susan Stewart. They assailed the myth of the singular genius. They remembered Aminah.
Hamilton began the conversation by talking about the day in 1993, before the ubiquity of cellphones, when the MacArthur Foundation tracked her down at an overseas airport to tell her about the fellowship. (Scroll to the bottom for the parenthetical endnotes marked throughout the interview.)
Ann Hamilton: It was such a gift. I had left my teaching job. (1) I was taking a dive, and something caught me. You must have been speechless, right?
Hanif Abdurraqib: I don’t pay a lot of attention to awards, so I actually didn’t know a lot about MacArthur. One of my mentors is the poet Terrance Hayes, and he’d won one, but it felt so far outside my orbit.
Hamilton: I’m sure it was like that for Aminah—like it was from outer space.
Abdurraqib: It doesn’t feel real. I remember I got the call when I was in a coffee shop in Indiana. I was teaching a workshop at Butler University, and they’d tried calling me twice during the day. But a funny thing had happened the night before. I heard from Terrance Hayes. He’s someone I text with semi-regularly, and he sent me a text: “Hey, I’m just making sure this is still your number.” And I was like, “Yeah, of course.” The third time they called, I wondered if this was connected to that. So I picked up, and they’re like, “Are you alone? Are you in a private place?” And I looked around: I’m in this coffee shop, and I’m not moving. I just set down my computer! I’m not repacking my stuff! So I lied.
Joel Oliphint: Hanif, you’re a year out from the MacArthur Fellowship. Has it changed things for you?
Abdurraqib: I don’t know if it has yet, and I wonder if this is your experience, Ann. There’s the immediacy of financial change, but in terms of space to create…
Hamilton: It’s the same.
Abdurraqib: It’s about the same, yeah. I actually don’t know if I have any opportunities that I wouldn’t have had anyway. Maybe one or two. I’ve had to get better at saying no to things.
Hamilton: You’re probably doing the same work, but it has a broader audience, so the work amplifies in another way, and you can’t really measure that. But you still have to make the work.
Abdurraqib: You still have to make the work.
Hamilton: And the work comes from the work.
Abdurraqib: That’s it.
Hamilton: I think for a long time I felt like I should have a bigger idea or a better idea or some epiphany.
Abdurraqib: Last year was interesting for me, because all this stuff happened at once. The MacArthur happened and the National Book Award thing happened. (2) But it was important for me to stay grounded, because this is all temporary. The work still has to get done. The day the MacArthur Fellowship was announced to the public, I was here, and I went to a Julien Baker concert. (3) I had to pick up a friend, but I was late because the day was hectic. And it was so great to pull up to my friend’s spot and have him be like, “You’re late, man.” Here’s this friend who loves me and knows me well and is like, “I’m proud of you, but also, we’re gonna miss the concert.” Columbus doesn’t really stand on ceremony in that way. It helps me. It keeps me grounded.
Hamilton: That is so clearly in your writing. I always say I’m really from the Midwest. I’m really from here. (4) When I moved back to Columbus after living in California, people were like, “You’re moving to Columbus, Ohio?” With a certain attitude in that question. But my family hugs me, no matter what happens. There’s something very grounding about that.
Oliphint: I think that sense of place is in both of your work. You’ve written about this a fair amount, Hanif, but that relationship with home can be tricky. Columbus is this place you love, but to love a place is to notice its faults.
Abdurraqib: I’m often in a position of clashing with the city. Because I love it, I think I brush up against it somewhat harshly. But I’ve also lived here in a unique way. I grew up on the East Side of Columbus. I’ve watched the city change and gentrify and then re-gentrify on top of the gentrification. And there’s a real displeasure in what currently is, because I knew what it was, and I knew how it served people who lived here. I grew up in a neighborhood that sometimes was talked about like people feared it. But inside that neighborhood, people were caring. If there’s any conflict I have with the city, it’s: How do I write about a place that exists outside of the narratives that are being spoken about it? How do I write about a city that does not need saving?
I truly believe that no one was a better architect of place than Aminah Robinson. I’m not detracting from my work; it is one thing to write about a place and archive a place in that way, but to afford a type of physical beauty to a place like she did with Poindexter Village and the area I live now, King-Lincoln Bronzeville, that was really important. It’s important for people to see themselves as the people who love them see them.
Oliphint: I’m curious about the impact of Aminah and her work on what you both do.
Hamilton: She was a maker and knew the power of making and transforming the materials at hand. And she didn’t stop. All of her work is just this flood that’s coming out, and whether you understand it or not, the tactile richness of it speaks to you, especially in a time when people so often aren’t growing up engaged with their hands in the same way. I grew up with a grandmother knitting and doing lap work. I was around all of that textile stuff. And when you look at Aminah’s work, it’s very intimate and domestic. So many people are on screens, but we are material. We think through our whole bodies and through touching things. And when that part of you is not getting fed in the same way, it changes how we think, how we make metaphors, everything about us.
Abdurraqib: If you were ever here at Aminah’s house before this, there was stuff everywhere, because nothing was disposable. (5) And this is part of why, I imagine, she never slept, because when you are physically surrounded by vessels of possibility, the pursuit is ever-present. This carton is not just a carton. This fabric is not just fabric. But also, there was such a rigorous and relentless care for her people and the places she loved, because much like no materials were disposable, she didn’t believe any geography or any people within those forgotten geographies were disposable. And that is why I’m really fortunate to have lived in an era where I could see neighborhoods in Columbus portrayed with the beauty that Aminah portrayed them. I saw Aminah’s stuff when I was a kid growing up on the East Side, and so, from a very young age, it presented to me the idea that the place I am is good enough. I can be proud of where my feet are planted, and I can learn to ascribe a certain beauty to the place my feet are planted, because no one here is disposable.
Aminah’s work was also committed to the history of how a neighborhood becomes a neighborhood. When we talk about gentrification and the shifting ways that this city folds in on itself and rebuilds, there has to be an archive of that, something that says: This place was not always the 50th high-rise condo in a three-block radius. Gentrification is not just a physical intrusion. It’s a cultural and emotional intrusion, too, because if the place I grew up no longer looks like the place I grew up, then I can’t show you parts of how I became who I am. And if I can’t show you that, that is a severing of lineage.
Hamilton: An erasure of self.
Oliphint: Aminah also had such an identifiable visual language that she developed. I wondered if we could talk about that with each of you, in terms of finding your language or voice as an artist.
Hamilton: My voice comes from my hands. I listen more to my hands and my feet than to my head. When you think about textiles and weaving, cloth is made up of many individual parts that have to do their work to hold together. There’s a reason that so many textile metaphors are used to describe our social relations. In my work, even if it might not appear like a weaving anymore, I think the underlayment of it is informed by that sensibility. If you have a piece of cloth on your lap, and you have a thread in your hand, you stick your needle down, and you can’t see the space where it is. It’s this invisible space. You might trust that it’s there, but then you’re bringing that thing you can’t see up to the surface to make something shareable and social. That is the basis of the work, and it takes many forms because I’m always responding to what I find.
I try to go blank: What’s here? Who are the people? What’s the social history? It’s very responsive, and driven by the question, what is already here? But also, what does it need? My work grows by having a situation to respond to. Hanif, how do you decide what you’re going to write about? I might have an architecture to work with, so what’s your architecture?
Abdurraqib: The decisions I make in what I want to write about are, primarily, what will challenge me to think about something I once considered differently? Music, sports—all these things are at the center of it. Popular culture in general. But I’m so obsessed with correcting my past curiosities and rebuilding new ones.
Hamilton: Or judgments?
Abdurraqib: Yeah, judgments, too. Repetition is important to me. So many of my books have these callbacks. “A Fortune for Your Disaster” had 18 poems with the same title. “Little Devil” had all those “Times I Forced Myself to Dance” sections. I like turning something over in my hand and asking myself, how can I look at this differently? Some of this is because I know what I’m good at as a writer. I know exactly how to evoke emotion. I know how to draw out a feeling, an image, a metaphor. I think I can put people in a physical place very well. But the question I ask myself is, how can I turn away from what I’m good at to enhance what happens when I get there? How do I become a better, more effective storyteller? How do I revisit judgments, opinions and curiosities and come out of it with a better understanding of myself in the process?
Hamilton: Because you return again and again, and it’s different each time.
Abdurraqib: Yeah. Criticism is an act of love. Early on I was more of a music critic than anything else, but I didn’t get into it because I wanted to be displeased or dissatisfied. I got into it because I wanted to expand my capacity for satisfaction, and if that meant spending time with an album that I would not normally love, that’s what it meant. But I wanted to expand my capacity for pleasure, because if I made the path of pleasure as wide as possible, then I could be more forgiving of the world, of myself, of my own histories that I’m laying out in my work.
Hamilton: There’s something in what you’re saying that makes me think about your willingness to go inside something—to be inside and actually have a relationship with it, to not stand outside.
Abdurraqib: Right. I want to be an active participant.
Oliphint: It sounds like there are multiple layers of discovery, as well. There’s this thing that you’re trying to understand, but along the way, there’s the discovery of self or the discovery of place, and those can all be layered into the same piece.
Abdurraqib: For me, so much of writing is not actually completing the pass. It’s teaching myself how to make the hard throw. So if I’m writing 10,000 words in a week, 100 of them, maybe, are the completion. But the other 9,900, that’s how you get there. I needed to write every single one of those words to say those 100 words. That is what makes writing exciting for me: How am I going to work my way out of this one? It’s a very Houdini-esque thing, where I begin at word one, and I’m in the safe, underwater, with my arms tied behind my back: How do I get out?
Hamilton: It’s also trusting the process, right?
Abdurraqib: Right. I had to train myself to surrender to the process and just say, I don’t know where it’s going to take me. Is it hard for you to do that still?
Hamilton: I think I just trust it. I was doing a project in China, and I had four students with me for several weeks. (6) They were watching a process happen, and they kept saying, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” And not in a bad way! They were watching me and seeing that it was changing and responsive, and that it’s not all figured out. They talked to me afterward and said it was the most important thing about that trip—trusting that you will find it. But you have to be inside it. You can’t pull back and be afraid.
Oliphint: Ann, your work is so site specific that I imagine it might not look like you’re doing anything when you’re involved in that process. You could just be walking around.
Hamilton: Mostly it is that, yeah. You’re just being quiet and listening, trying to pay attention. You have to trust that doing nothing is something.
Abdurraqib: Sometimes the process supersedes your own intentions for what you thought the work would be, and that, to me, is a real magical experience.
Hamilton: The poet Susan Stewart said to me, “Your work knows where you need to go before you do.”
Abdurraqib: I also just get excited about things I want to tell people about. In “Little Devil,” there’s a small part about Ellen Armstrong, who was the first Black woman magician to headline her own show in the United States. When I found out about her, I was like, everyone has to know this. I don’t care if it’s only two paragraphs. And if I’m at a concert that’s exciting, and you’re not here, I want you to be here. I want everyone to be in this place with me. It’s the act of asking, is what I was made to feel possible for you? So many music writers I grew up loving afforded me that opportunity.
Hamilton: That’s so interesting, Hanif, and it’s so beautiful, because it is about a feeling and a felt quality. But in visual arts—and maybe this is the academic part of things—people don’t want to talk about feeling.
Abdurraqib: Really? I feel like so much emotion comes through in your work, though.
Hamilton: Oh, I’m not afraid of it. Not at all. If information changed the world, the world would be different. It’s feelings that change the world. So how do we touch each other? And do you allow yourself to be touched? It is in the felt that it matters. My biggest fear is to become like a rock, to not feel anything. That’s a kind of death.
Abdurraqib: Absolutely. I’m going to quote that. That is a type of death. I sometimes don’t care if you are even interested in what I’m talking about. I care if we are mutually interested in the pursuit of feeling.
Hamilton: Can I quote you on that? That’s really good.
Abdurraqib: The book I just finished, initially it was loosely about basketball in this era of LeBron James in Ohio. And it’s not going to matter if someone has even seen a basketball game or cares about basketball or knows who LeBron James is, much like when I wrote the Tribe Called Quest book. The pursuit was never: You need to have intimate knowledge of what I am examining in order to enter this. That’s a surrendering of ego, too—of not presenting myself as an expert who has to guide you through it, and instead saying, how can we use this as a vehicle to pursue a mutual feeling?
Hamilton: Yeah. It’s a vehicle, so while it matters completely, it also doesn’t matter at all. Susan Rothenberg was a wonderful painter, and she is known for her early paintings of these very large horses that went from one edge of the canvas to the next. And I remember asking her about her work. I was imagining what her process might be in the studio. And she said, “The horse is just a way to get to the other side of the painting.”
Abdurraqib: That’s so great. One of my earliest mentors told me that poets make a living writing the same three poems. Or even songwriters. You think about Johnny Cash; his whole thing was God, love and murder. You have to find those three vehicles. Say I’m returning to death, or a curiosity about the impermanence of our lives—that affords me a lot of room to play. I can do that across many vehicles, and they matter, but they don’t define what the work becomes.
Hamilton: Sometimes your subject is not central to what you are doing at all. For me, because each project is so different, it brings me into totally different worlds, and those become landscapes that inform and shape the stuff I think about all the time. It takes you outside of yourself so that you lose that paralyzing self-consciousness that seems to be a human condition for a lot of people. Being an artist or a writer could make you hyper self-conscious. But for me, in the act of making, the goal is to lose myself completely.
Oliphint: I’m curious about your relationship to the idea of genius, and if that relationship has changed in the wake of the MacArthur Fellowship.
Abdurraqib: I’m from the Toni Morrison school of thought, which is that, even presenting the idea of genius summons a type of scarcity, and scarcity is a real enemy to a lot of things. It’s an enemy to artistic accountability and to exploration. And it presents this idea, especially with Black artists, that there’s a chosen few and nothing else. Particularly with Black artists in America, when there’s a chosen few, a great many get overlooked. My impulse is to search for brilliance everywhere.
Hamilton: It’s a mythology, the singular genius. That’s such a horrible myth.
Abdurraqib: Right. The other day I was on the East Side working with some young writers, and we were outside shooting basketball. It had just rained, so there were puddles on the court, and the sunlight was reflecting into one of the puddles, creating one of those mini rainbows on the ground. One of the kids, maybe 11 years old, looked down at that, and he was like, “That reminds me of my mother, because those are all the colors my mother loved.” That is a moment of genius, and I am grateful that I got to witness it. If you accumulate enough of those good moments, someone somewhere might call you a genius, but that doesn’t mean anything. We’re all capable of accessing these moments. I need to exist in a world outside the orbit of the mythology of genius and take in the quieter moments that are humming and vibrating with genius all around me. How can I seek out more young people who look at a rainbow and see their mothers? That’s what I want.
Hamilton: It’s a cultural habit of assigning value to something. So “genius” isn’t the right word, but it’s good in the sense of someone saying, this writing has value. It just comes with all this other baggage, unfortunately. To go back to the grant, the recognition is a gift, and the job is to give that gift away.
Oliphint: And as you’ve both said, you still gotta do the work.
Hamilton: You have to do the work.
Abdurraqib: You gotta show up. You can’t coast on other people’s imagination of what you’re capable of, because it’s fickle. People are always like, “Do you feel pressure now?” I don’t feel any pressure. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up thinking I would be a writer. I didn’t start writing seriously until I was well into my 20s.
Hamilton: Well, you got to it, didn’t you?
Abdurraqib: I got pretty busy when I started! But there’s too much pleasure in the work for me to feel pressured. I don’t want to live a life where I’m hard on myself.
Hamilton: Yeah. Get rid of that judgmental voice.
Abdurraqib: Gotta get rid of it, because it doesn’t serve me, and it doesn’t serve anyone who might like anything I write, and it doesn’t serve that pleasureful view of the world that I’m always pursuing, because that allows for a generosity in my writing and in my living, and those things are intertwined. If there’s generosity in my living, there’s generosity in my writing, and vice versa.
This interview has been edited and condensed from the actual conversation. A shorter version appears in the November 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.
1. Before her time at Ohio State, Hamilton taught at the University of California in Santa Barbara from 1985 to 1991.
2. In 2021, “A Little Devil in America” was a nonfiction finalist for the National Book Award, and earlier this year it won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. His 2019 book, “Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest,” was longlisted for the National Book Award.
3. Abdurraqib wrote the album biography for Baker’s 2021 record, Little Oblivions.
4. Hamilton was born in Lima, Ohio, but moved to Columbus at age 2.
5. Abdurraqib sought out Robinson in the early 2010s, when he was beginning his journey as a writer but before he’d published anything substantial. “I was just an eager person with questions,” he says. “She was so warm and giving.”
6. In 2016, Hamilton created an installation titled “Again, Still, Yet” in Wuzhen, China, a historic water town.
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