From the garden terrace of Michael Hannan’s lively backyard to the modern décor of his exhibition in downtown Oakland, there are piles of delicate art pieces that blend cultural themes with natural materials. Found objects, such as waste metals, feathers, cloth, woven grasses and abandoned cabinets, are the main ingredients of his mysterious, dreamy and creative artwork.
Next to each wall-mounted collage piece or sculpture at the Oakstop gallery in downtown Oakland, where Hannan is currently showing his “Making Human” exhibition, there is a paper illustrating the story behind the piece. For example, in the piece “8 Bit Shaman,” a human-like figure is portrayed on a scratched metal “canvas” using chemical etching and found objects that have been glued to the background. Hannan used a Casino PT-87 Keyboard as a body and circuit board as a head. The piece illustrates the idea that a shaman, a person who is regarded as having access to the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, could exist in modern times. In the text, Hannan explains where the word “shaman” comes from, how the term was introduced to the west, and how western anthropologists applied the term. The “8 Bit” part comes from his passion for early digital electronic music equipment.
Hannan, an Oakland-based self-taught artist and GoPro warehouse manager, explores what he calls “MH” style artwork—that’s an acronym for Michael Hannan as well as for “Making Human,” the name of his first Oakland show. The solo exhibition will run until October 31 at Oakstop, a community-focused art gallery and co-working space that exhibits work from local and emerging artists.
“My subject matter’s always people,” Hannan said. “We are human before we are a shade of skin, a religion, a political party, or a nationality. I make art that is human; that is my subject matter—people. It is for everyone and excludes no one. If I can do work that represents all of us, maybe there is chance we can all find a common ground.”
Hannan strives to capture the essence of indigenous cultural history—so much so that some of his artwork seems almost to come right from the past. Utilizing ancient textures and patterns, he achieves harmony with modern materials—for instance, circuit boards, rusted metals and abandoned boards. “To have industrial metal with natural wood is harmonious,” he said. “It shows this is where we came from and this is where we are now. Also, it is way of enjoying the things from the past and not being ashamed of the future.”
Indigenous art occupies a special place at the intersection of art and anthropology. Hannan educated himself about indigenous art by reading every book he came across on the topics of cultural history, folk art, hip hop, African, Celtic, and Native American culture. Hannan’s assemblies are often based on ancient art forms from Africa, Australia, the South Pacific islands and the Northwest coast of America. More than 30 pieces of his are exhibited at the show. As the Oakland Art Murmur’s website puts it: “Paying tribute to the raw forms of art connecting all cultures, Michael has set out on a mission to show the world an art form that is fresh to its viewers but familiar to their souls.”
“As a kid, I was really into religion. I thought the idea of spirituality was a real intense thing, and I really wanted to figure it out,” Hannan said. He was raised in a Catholic family in New York, but he did not identify with that religion. Instead, he chose Darwin. At the age of 10, he told his mother that he would not go to church at all—then he had to tell the priest that he was leaving the church.
As Hannan grew older, he explored different disciplines, philosophies and practices. “I was a student of classical Indian music in high school. I was very interested in all cultural beliefs,” he said. “At that same time, I started out learning about Native American culture, and I figured that it was not something that was a world away—it was right here in the United States.”
This led him to move to Arizona, so he could experience what is known as a Spirit Walk. As part of the process, he had dreams in which he felt that he was connected with “who I was a long time ago.” “About a week later,” he continued, “I started to make artwork based on that experience.” Very early on, he began to incorporate objects into his art, making them 3-dimensional, rather than flat paintings. “Making art, the first few years, I had a flood of information,” he said. “Some artists tried to tell me what to create and how to do my art, which I ignored. I would not accept art for hanging on walls as only paint and canvas. I want people to remember that we all come from the same place spiritually and culturally.”
To collect the right materials, he always pulls his car over and picks up pieces of metal on the side of the road. “The world is covered in garbage, and I am picking up the garbage, whether it is a wood branch, or metals in the construction zone, or even a circuit board,” said Hannan. He once picked up a chunk of wood carved by a beaver and developed it into a “collaborative” piece. “I was so moved by the work that I wanted to throw my style on it and turn it into something we did together,” he said.
In one sculpture piece titled “Storyteller,” he focused on the tradition of storytelling, and how ancient culture and folklore is handed down over time. He accidentally found a piece of wood resembling a passionate storyteller who is in the heat of telling a story. “Stories reflect the cycle of life,” he wrote on the description of the artwork. “A storyteller is both the key and the door to another time, people and culture.”
In another piece, “Ta’ai,” he told a story about the Saisiyat people, one of Taiwan’s 12 officially-recognized aboriginal groups, who lived in mountains next to a tribe known as the Ta’ai. The story goes that the Ta’ai taught the Saisiyat to farm by providing them seeds. One day, the Ta’ai sexually harassed some aboriginal women. As revenge, the Saisiyat killed all the Ta’ai people by cutting a bridge over which they were all crossing. Just two Ta’ai survived. The sculpture depicts a scene when one of the surviving Ta’ai women is passing down some of their songs and cultures.
Hannan was part of the generation raised after the culture-changing 1960’s. He actively absorbed the media content of his childhood: The Electric Company, Sesame Street, and the Jackson 5 cartoon. “Those styles of art were urban and simplistic,” he said. These colorful series proved to have a lasting effect on his visual sensibilities.
Music is another inspiration. He based a piece called “Royal Family” on the connection between Jamaican reggae and American hip-hop, featuring two of his favorite producers, Prince Paul and King Tubby. He said he often uses this piece to educate young people about music history and pay homage to its innovators. In the piece, he uses a strip of metal to resemble a king’s face. “This piece of metal, I didn’t do anything about it,” he said of its shape. “It is already a face. I just picked it up off the ground.”
Hannan included a quote from Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican political leader and entrepreneur, in the flyer for his exhibition: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” This idea is something Hannan heard reflected in the reggae music he listened to in his teens—it resonated with him, and he carried it through his life ever since.
Hannan feels lucky to have art as part of his life, and to have his first exhibit in Oakland. “I did not express myself before art,” he said. “Being able to start right away and have this style right at the beginning—it was great because I had a voice. So many artists that go to school learn the technique part of it, but don’t know what to say. And I am the opposite. I am very low on technique, but I have something to say.”