Visitors to Steffani Jemison’s exhibition “Plant Now, Dig You Later,” which appeared at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, from March 2017 to March 2018, heard the show before seeing it. Recordings of voices singing or wailing, joined at times by cellos playing together gently in harmony or dissonance, echoed through the stairwell leading to the galleries. Listening closely to the sound piece Recitatif (What if we need new words?), 2017, one could almost discern patterns in the voices evocative of language or the precise structures of classical music in the cellos. Yet any semblance of order ultimately fell apart; the notes and utterances became pure sound.
When I met Jemison in her Brooklyn studio this past spring, she identified “incomprehension” as a crucial tool in her practice. Working in a wide variety of mediums, she aims to explore how different methods for understanding culture are available—or not—to different audiences. She mentioned Édouard Glissant (1928–2011) as a formative influence, crediting the Antillean writer with having created “a philosophy and poetics of difference, rather than one of likeness.” Glissant’s notion of “relations” between distinct entities is key for the artist, as it offers, in her words, “a way of recognizing the encounter between beings who are impossible to understand, translate, or represent.”1
Jemison’s works are often fragments that point to a larger body of research, much of it focused on the epistemological implications of such encounters. At Mass MoCA, some of this research was available to visitors in the form of exhibition pamphlets and wall texts. The sounds of Recitatif, for example, are described in one such pamphlet as articulations of a universal language called Solresol, which was conceived in the early nineteenth century by François Sudre. The French composer and music teacher developed this language, which could be “spoken” by both voices and instruments, by recombining the seven notes of the solfège scale (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti) in various ways to create thousands of words. A series of six diagrammatic line drawings (all 2017) on view in the recent show represent, with signs reminiscent of musical notation, pairs of antonyms such as freedom/not freedom and glass/opposite of glass.
Except to the few Solresol aficionados in the world, the words that are sung-spoken or played in Recitatif remain opaque. Yet they do, in fact, have meaning. The lyrics, which range in length from a single word to longer excerpts, draw on a range of sources such as Lucille Clifton’s 2004 poem “mulberry fields,” lines from Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing (1989), and protest slogans. Some of these passages and phrases relate to the use of language at fraught points in African American history. Clifton’s poem, for example, describes how stones in an old slave plantation could be “read”:
. . . they say the rocks were shaped
some of them scratched with triangles and other forms they
must have been trying to invent some new language they say.
Most of the other work in “Plant Now, Dig You Later” maintained this focus on language and codes. For several pieces Jemison painted cryptic black marks on twenty-inch-wide ribbons of acetate that hung from the walls and draped onto low pedestals. Each mark was repeated several times with slight variations, giving them the appearance of characters in a written script. In fact, the markings derive from an esoteric system invented by James Hampton (1909–1964), a Washington, D.C., janitor who spent fourteen years beginning in 1950 secretly building a shrine from tin foil and found objects in his garage. (The shrine has been on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in the capital since its discovery in the mid-’60s.) Computer scientists have found patterns in his texts indicating that it is a language, but have yet to crack the code.
There were a few striking moments of legibility in the exhibition. A yellow neon sign, for example, spells out revelation in the handwritten script found in one of Hampton’s notebooks. Hanging on the walls around the space were blurry photographs printed in a range of sizes and mounted on plexiglass atop mirrored bronze-colored grounds. In one, a silhouetted farmer carries a pitchfork. Another shows what looks like a meandering stream, not unlike the painted squiggles on acetate that hung next to it. The largest, measuring twelve feet across and seven feet tall, presents, with striking clarity, the words black utopia. All are close-ups of details from of the cover of Black Utopia: Negro Communal Experiments in America (1963) by William and Jane Pease, a work that documents how black-run communes were central to the utopian tradition of North American culture.
The conceptual backstory for each work in the exhibition was available to all curious visitors to the museum. Yet each piece also pointed to modes of communication that could have an insular dimension, legible only to self-selected communities. Though the inventors of languages such as Solresol may have intended to facilitate universal communication, Jemison’s work suggests how esoteric codes might be useful to groups of people, especially African Americans, living and sharing ideas under conditions of oppression.
The tradition examined in Black Utopia has been a touchstone for Jemison. In addition to archival research on the subject, her practice involves enacting collaborative working methods and building support systems for herself and her peers. In 2015 the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration” series (1940–41), an epic visual narrative, conveyed through a collection of small paintings, about the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North. Coinciding with the landmark show, Jemison staged “Promise Machine,” a project that incorporated multiple strands of research. She ran workshops with Harlem residents and activists to discuss the future of Harlem, as well as its past. One focal point was the Utopia Neighborhood Club, a Harlem-based women’s group active in the early twentieth century that provided Lawrence and many other artists from the area with training and supplies, while offering basic social services to tens of thousands of children from the neighborhood. Jemison also held private reading groups in the museum’s library, and developed her forthcoming book Imperium in Imperio. Additionally, Jemison and artists Courtney Bryan and Justin Hicks composed a new musical piece that musicians and singers performed in MoMA’s galleries. Jemison’s libretto incorporates words and phrases from her conversations in Harlem, Lawrence’s interviews, MoMA’s object files, and her own writing.
“The past flows forward in Steffani’s work,” Meg Onli, a curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, who has worked closely with Jemison, told me in a recent discussion. She describes Jemison as a historian. The artist’s use of archival material is less about representing the past than about reshaping our understanding of how history affects the present. In my conversations with her, Jemison referred to Jacques Derrida’s notion of the archive as a reserve of ideas upon which to draw, and noted that her own responsibility as an artist includes “thickening the conversation around the work to create a richer context.” In the art of her mentor, Charles Gaines, a seminal black Conceptualist who constantly attempts to “unpack his own position,” Jemison finds a model for situating herself in relation to the historical contexts surrounding her art.
Jemison also described her own life experiences to me: her father is a retired lawyer, and her grandfather was the pastor of a major church on Chicago’s South Side. Though she grew up in middle-class circumstances, her family sent her to a church in a poor neighborhood. As Jemison explained, even well-off African-Americans live in proximity to poverty and experience greater uncertainty of class expectations than their counterparts. “My extended family and community was and is economically diverse,” she said. Some of her work could be regarded as expressions of this sense of both solidarity and precarity. As part of the 2017 group exhibition “Speech/Acts” at the ICA Philadelphia, Jemison displayed selections from “Untitled (Affirmations for Living),” an ongoing collage series she began in 2011. These works grapple with the random murder of a Chicago high school honor student named Derrion Albert by including fragments of an inspirational poem that he had hung above his desk.
The context Jemison aims to “thicken” is further informed by her studies of comparative literature, ethnomusicology, aesthetics, and experimental film. Jemison frequently collaborates with other artists whose works foreground research and are guided by such intellectual traditions. These collaborations often involve reading and discussion groups meant to facilitate the exchange of ideas between artists and audiences. For eight months beginning in 2010, at the Project Row Houses residency in Houston, Jemison and Houston-based artist Jamal Cyrus cohosted a weekly study session focused on African American cultural history and attended by other artists of color, including Rick Lowe and Robert A. Pruitt. Members of the group gathered again at the New Museum in New York in 2011, where Jemison and Cyrus produced Alpha’s Bet Is Not Over Yet, an installation that included photocopies of more than five hundred black periodicals from the first half of the twentieth century. W.E.B. DuBois’s journal The Crisis was among the titles available in facsimile. In light of the conversations focused on this history of publishing, Jemison recognized a need for new outlets for avant-garde writers of color. She founded Future Plan and Program books, which has published texts by artists such as Martine Syms, Jibade-Khalil Huffman, and Jina Valentine.
Jemison’s interest in publishing is expansive. In I Call This One “Happiness” (2015), an online multimedia project published by Triple Canopy, sentences about art and artists borrowed from African American street fiction (pulpy works aimed at black readers) appear atop details of artworks by black painters including Aaron Douglas, Howardena Pindell, and Archibald Motley. As readers scroll through, the relationship between foreground and background shifts. The artworks often obscure the texts and vice versa, although each text eventually becomes legible. The piece juxtaposes two distinct strains of culture: on the one hand, the “high art” celebrated by critics and historians, and on the other, gritty imaginative responses to that rarefied culture written for audiences that may not have direct access to it. Despite broad parallels between the images and texts, Jemison’s work suggests a tension between the individual expressions of painters and the generic conventions of street fiction, which often emphasizes the role of fate and chance in determining narrative outcomes.
The different expectations that artists and viewers bring to various cultural products is a major concern for Jemison. Though her work draws on African American history and culture, the artist disputes the notion that her work is uniquely about race, per se, pointing out that much art by white artists could equally be said to be “about” whiteness. It isn’t that any work about the black diaspora is about race, she explained to me, just that white audiences often choose to regard their own experiences as normative, ignoring the nonwhite perspectives that have been formative to American culture.
It is through her videos and new media works that Jemison most clearly foregrounds these perspectives, and highlights some of the art world’s assumptions. The Meaning of Various Photographs to Tyrand Needham (2009) restages a 1973 John Baldessari video of a similar title in which a friend of the Conceptual artist flips through banal news photographs and explains their meanings. Jemison substituted Needham, an African American teenager she knows, for the unseen narrator in the original work and replaced the photographs Baldessari’s collaborator comments on with images related to African American culture she obtained by Googling terms such as “black,” “black men,” and “black boys.” Needham occasionally misreads certain images, perhaps deliberately, offering his own interpretations of pictures ranging from a portrait of Kanye West to documentation of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. In an essay analyzing the piece, Martine Syms argues that through these subtle disruptions, “Jemison’s work challenges the master narrative, giving storytelling authority to a different figure than that which is ‘normative.’”2
Personal (2014) is a more implicit challenge to conventional narratives of history. Each of the three sections of the video depicts a young black man walking, pacing, or standing in various public spaces in Brooklyn. The footage plays both forward and backward, giving the impression of circularity, with time moving toward both future and past. This effect, which suggests a nonlinear narrative, takes on a critical dimension in several scenes that take place in front of celebratory monuments to civil rights struggles, such as a giant mural of Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela. Created at a time when police violence against black people was driving protests around the country, the work calls into question perceived notions of “progress.”
Jemison’s most recent video is Sensus Plenior (2017), a half-hour work that feels as if it belongs to multiple historical periods simultaneously. It stars Susan Webb, the leading practitioner and theorist of Gospel mime (or as Webb calls it, the ministry of mime) in which Bible stories are recounted, with musical accompaniment, through pantomime. The black-and-white video has an old-fashioned look that suggests historical roots for Webb’s innovative contemporary performances. In her book Authentic Ministry: Purposeful Presentation and Guidelines for Mime Ministry and Liturgical Dance (2016), Webb discusses the form’s precursors in Ancient Greek theater, African dance, commedia dell’arte, the postwar dramatic miming of Marcel Marceau, and the pioneering silent gospel duo K & K Mime.
The video opens with Webb practicing in a black tank top and white gloves. We next see her seated at a makeup table painting her face white. The delicate cinematography, by Ayana Baraka and Jemison herself, shows Webb tracing the area around her eyebrows and lips with theatrical face paint. Throughout the process, she explains the protocols of her performance to someone off camera. As in early films, there are often links between the soundtrack and the image, as when a subtle vibrato plays as Webb slowly extends her hand to emphasize a point.
In the second part of the film, Webb performs energetically, though the camera captures her in slow motion, creating a slightly blurred effect. Her white face-paint seems to have a life of its own. Her eyes, eyebrows, and mouth take on outsize importance in conveying various stories, although, as in much of the work on view in “Plant Now, Dig You Later,” the mode of expression is highly coded. One senses that the church context is vital for understanding what Webb is trying to convey through her vigorous hand motions and exaggerated facial expressions. Just past the thirty-minute mark, the video cuts to an image of Webb sitting in a pew while a piano can be heard. With her eyes closed, she rolls her head as if winding down after a performance. A parishioner appears, a stand-in, perhaps, for the community that derives meaning from Webb’s actions.
“Sensus Plenior has a very particular use in Catholic hermeneutics,” Jemison told curator Osei Bonsu. “It refers to a specific way of thinking about how we can read the Word beyond simply the text.”3 Webb’s performances represent a culturally grounded mode of interpretation, extending ancient questions about the tools readers have to make sense of the world around them. For Jemison, these are the essential questions of her art: What does it mean to understand? How do we know that we understand? What are the limits of understanding?