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This is an image of an artwork made by Tomashi Jackson in 2023 titled: Here at the Western World (Professor Windham's Early 1970s Classroom & the 1972 Second Baptist Church Choir).

Tomashi Jackson, Here at the Western World (Professor Windham's Early 1970s Classroom & the 1972 Second Baptist Church Choir), 2023

Tomashi Jackson Probes American Democracy in Her Multilayered Work

By Francesca Aton
May 30, 2024

Tomashi Jackson’s midcareer survey “Across the Universe” at the ICA Philadelphia probes the histories of culturally resonant people and places as they relate to sociopolitical issues surrounding matters of race and the state of democracy in the United States. Jackson’s multilayered surfaces feature materials like quarry marble dust and Colorado sand, as well as screen prints from film stills and photographs, which highlight notable historical moments. Her work—Here at the Western World (Professor Windham’s Early 1970’s Classroom & the 1972 Second Baptist Church Choir), 2023, pictured above—is one such piece that will be on view in the exhibition through June 2. 

You have a rigorous research-based art practice. How did that begin? 

The earliest works in the show begin in 2014 when I was a student, with explorations into employing research-based methodology. I’ve always been asking questions and trying to visualize language and relationships. At the time, I was experimenting with researching histories of American school desegregation. In particular, I was focused on the cases that led to the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954. As a student at Yale, I had access to the law library. I spent a lot of time trying to understand the many cases of this landmark legislation. Anyone who uses interstate travel, public education, or public broadcasting is a direct beneficiary of this legislative package. 

I found myself with lots of questions about public-school transportation and a long legacy of devaluing the lives of children of color and public space, as well as defunding and depriving public schools of resources after the Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools. I had faith that if I focus on an area of research or a particular question that something is going to come of it. I didn’t know what the work was going to look like. I didn’t know what the solution was going to be. But I just started reading the cases. 

How did you become interested in public spaces and resources? 

I’m from Southern California. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I was very impacted by the prominence of murals and narratives painted in public spaces. There’s this part of me that I can’t really shake: a desire to inquire about issues of public concern and embed them into a process by which new material is produced. The first works start there. 

I was exploring the perception of color and its impact on the value of life in public space. As an adult, I was able to again study Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color, which I had first learned in elementary school. This work gave me an opportunity to start exploring color relationships chromatically and societally. I realized that the impact of color perception and optical illusions initiated by interactions of particular colors which make us see things that aren’t really there. I saw an echo in the case law that I was reading. 

Subsequent bodies of work follow this methodology, with site-specific research on such topics as the relationship between public transportation and voting referenda in Atlanta, for example, as well as a comparison between the contemporary use of third-party transfer programs seizing paid properties and the historic property dispossession of people of color in New York. Let’s talk about some of your latest works, which were produced during an artist residency in Boulder, Colorado. 

There are three new pieces in the show that use marble dust from the nearby Yule Mountain Quarry, which produced the marble for the Lincoln Memorial and most—if not all—of the great monuments in Washington D.C. 

Not unlike your earlier works, you employ a rigorous material process that alludes to the history of abolition and democracy in America. How do you create these multi-layered surfaces? 

Before I know what the image is going to be, I’m building a surface with material that is symbolic to me of a place in some way. The material used for Here at the Western World…, for instance, is made of a quilting liner. I spent a lot of time in southern Colorado, outside Denver in the San Luis Valley, and I made friends with people who gave me such textiles. I attached the quilt liner to a piece of raw canvas. I used paper bags, which I separate from the handles. Over many days, I soaked the paper and unfolded it 

carefully, before laminating it into the surfaces of the work. The pieces become kind of like animal hides that are stretched onto the wall and cured in anticipation of stretching them onto awning style frames. The surface of the piece was then encrusted with sand from southern Colorado and marble dust from the Yule quarry. 

There are additional layers and images constructed on top of that surface as well. 

The halftone line image that’s projected on the surface in yellow hues is an image of a particular classroom from This Is Not Who We Are (2002), a documentary film about Black communal experiences in Boulder from the 1800s to more recent years. The catalyst of the film, which questions Boulder’s standing as what some have called the happiest place to live in the U.S., is a controversy over excessive police force used against a Black student at Naropa University in 2019. I included an image from the film of Professor Wyndham’s classroom. 

Printed on the pink vinyl is a still that I created of a very quick moment from 1972 home video footage of the choir from the Second Baptist church—the only black congregation in Boulder for many years—singing, which resonated with my own experiences going to church growing up in Los Angeles. These places historically in the United States and other colonized countries are where people of color gather for respite and liberation. There are these moments that happen where people are trying to get closer to freedom by gathering together for release and for mutual exaltation.