Exclusive visual art collaboration with Atlanta muralist for world premiere Nighthawks

Atlanta Muralist Charity Hamidullah

In a three-part series, Atlanta Ballet talks to Atlanta muralist Charity Hamidullah, costume designer Abigail Dupree-Polston and Choreographer-in-Residence Claudia Schreier on an unprecedented visual art collaboration for world premiere Nighthawks in Atlanta Ballet’s season finale Liquid Motion, and learns more about how this exciting alliance has drawn inspiration from art and design, music and dance, and the city of Atlanta.

Charity Hamidullah's murals adorn buildings and landmarks in her adopted city of Atlanta and if you have driven by Saltbox on Chattahoochee Avenue NW or visited the Microsoft building, you might have been inspired by her colorful, bold and impactful work. Here at Atlanta Ballet, Charity has been inspiring us for the past eight months, having been engaged by Choreographer-in-Residence Claudia Schreier as visual art collaborator for her latest world premiere, Nighthawks.

In Part I of the series, Charity took a break from painting sets to share insights into her work and the exclusive visuals she has created for Atlanta Ballet.

Charity, tell us more about your background as an artist.

I am a professional tattooist originally from Rochester and at the age of 20, decided to move to Atlanta in search of a bigger place to grow creatively. I worked as a tattoo artist in the Castleberry Hill district, a trendy industrial area, and its creative influence soon opened my eyes to other artistic avenues. Through experiencing the many art galleries, paintings and murals, and getting to know the people, I started a witness a life – and an opportunity – that was bigger than the art I was creating on skin. That’s when I started creating murals, or, as I like to put it, taking my art beyond the body. As a tattooist, I’ve always curated art for the body, so translating it onto buildings came quite naturally. Painting walls is akin to painting the body of a building to me, so I felt the two mediums effortlessly intertwined.

How did you get involved with Claudia Schreier for the world premiere, Nighthawks?

I received a surprise call from Atlanta Ballet’s Choreographer-in-Residence Claudia Schreier and Costume Designer Abigail Dupree-Polston about their artistic vision for Nighthawks. They were seeking an Atlanta-based muralist to develop art pieces that would be printed onto fabric to create the dancers’ bespoke costumes. They had seen examples of my work online and loved how I was working with the Atlanta community. So they reached out to see if I was interested, and we immediately clicked. I couldn’t believe that they saw me in that light and considered my work relevant to the ballet. It was such a groundbreaking idea, a unique collaboration, and an incredible opportunity to see my art moving on stage. I just couldn’t say no!

Talk us through the concept, your artistic vision and the steps of your creation.

The concept was for me to design and create 12 art pieces. These individual artworks would then be digitally printed onto fabric and designed into costumes by Abigail. The costumes would ultimately be given movement on stage through Claudia Schreier’s choreography and Wynton Marsalis’ music. While that sounds fairly straightforward, I can assure you it wasn’t! I spent a lot of time just sitting with myself and considering what I was trying to say. I walked around Atlanta in search of inspiration, taking in the sights and sounds of my home that would ultimately influence the design. And from there I started visualizing and piecing things together. Having worked on skin for so many years, I love bringing the human form into my work. I wanted to showcase the people of Atlanta in their city and ultimately decided to take a series of photographs of Atlanta models and use them as a basis for the artwork.

Artwork by Charity Hamidullah. Photo: Jamani Chavis.

So you worked with a photographer and Atlanta models? Tell us more!

I was inspired by the monochromatic and dramatic work of Atlanta-based photographer Jamani Chavis, which I found conducive to telling the stories of city life. But not just any city; I wanted to showcase the Atlanta I see and love. Every day I am influenced by the relationships, community and connections, as well as the growth, resilience and diversity of this amazing city and the people who live here. And I wanted to ensure the models, and ultimately the photographs and artwork, reflected this. I strongly believe people are the light within the city and I very much wanted to concentrate on the human story. Once the photographs had been taken, I looked closely at the narrative of each image, taking note of the connection of hands and the dancing of feet, for example, and started creating patterns on top of each digital photograph on my tablet device. I played around with color and patterns, using lines that represent journey and connection, depicting city life and how we intertwine with one another.

How did the music influence your creative process?

As soon as I started listening to The Jungle, I was reminded of being in the city. It was harmonious, but a little chaotic at first. Parts of the music were very soothing, other parts made me wake up. It was truly like listening to a story from beginning to end, and I immediately felt that I needed to translate that into art. The music has a lot of movement, flow and energy, and as I was playing the composition, I began drawing lines on top of the photographs, moving with the flow of the music and emulating the rhythms and beats. So you’ll see a lot of random, chaotic movements in my designs, but once you see the costumes and the way they are pieced together, you’ll get a better sense of the flow and movement.

Artwork by Charity Hamidullah. Photo: Jamani Chavis.

Let’s stay with the costumes. Can you talk more about your collaboration with costume designer Abigail Dupree-Polston?

Abigail has so much experience in costume design and quickly made me feel comfortable with the process of ultimately designing for the body and stage. She taught me how to place colors so they would stand out on different dancers and in different scenes, gave suggestions on color palettes that would accentuate the body in diverse ways, and how to draw lines on angles that would look interesting on stage.

You also worked on the set. What can we expect to see?

I have just finished painting the last set piece! Claudia wanted a very deep, moody, royal color palette, with gem tones of greens, reds and purples. I also carried this color palette through to my artwork designs for the costumes. But there will definitely be a contrast between the sets and the costumes. The costumes have a lot more movement and color. While the backdrops are still colorful, I did tone them down for contrast, so the focus would be on the dancers and their stories.

‘The Jungle’ originally speaks to New York City, but Claudia wished to capture the essence of Atlanta in Nighthawks. How much did Atlanta influence your designs, and what can we expect to see of our city on stage?

Atlanta influences everything I do and is very much a part of who I am today. There has been so much personal growth for me here and I definitely wanted to pay homage to that. Through the photographs of the models, I aspired to showcase what Atlanta means to me and what I see here every day; strong people who are defying the odds, their beauty, their growth, and their ability to rise to life’s challenges. I feel Atlanta is experiencing such a creative renaissance, with amazing people on their individual life journeys yet intertwining with one another at the same time. I wanted to grasp the power of that in my artwork, and for people to feel inspired, encouraged and intrigued. After all, Rochester raised me, but Atlanta made me who I am as an artist.

Artwork by Charity Hamidullah. Photo: Jamani Chavis.

You can see Charity's work come to life on the costumes and sets of Claudia Schreier's Nighthawks, part of the Liquid Motion program from May 10-12 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.