Tomashi Jackson’s Many Shades of Voter Suppression
At the Wexner Center for the Arts, the artist draws connections between the US Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Albers’s theory of colour
BY NATALIE HADDAD IN REVIEWS | 30 DEC 20
Tomashi Jackson’s ‘Love Rollercoaster’ – named after the eponymous 1975 hit by funk band the Ohio Players – is visually dizzying and yet remarkably cohesive. The exhibition’s five multimedia paintings and one audio work (all 2020) consider voter suppression and disenfranchisement in the US, with a focus on Black voters in Ohio – a state that went red, yet again, in this year’s presidential election.
Each of the paintings, which seamlessly integrate aesthetics and politics, layers two archival images: one painted on canvas affixed to a wood stretcher and collaged with election ephemera; the other printed on acrylic transparencies that overlay the canvas. Jackson returns to the same moments in multiple works. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting, is principal among them. Recurring in four of the paintings, it serves as a watershed through which the past and present are refracted.
The lowered head of President Lyndon B. Johnson, printed on a magenta transparency, is at the centre of Time and Space (1948 End of Voter Registration Line) (1965 LBJ Signs the Voting Rights Act). The image is juxtaposed with one of Black voters queuing outside of a Baptist church, rendered in cobalt blue and collaged with pamphlets featuring phrases like ‘Be a Voter’. The images are partially framed by a grainy border: a mixture of soil from Lucy Depp Park in Ohio – the site of a stop on the Underground Railroad, by which enslaved people made their way safely to freedom – and marble dust from Athens, Greece, considered the birthplace of democracy. The paintings posit history as a dialogue between a multiplicity of perspectives, subject to distortion or erasure by those in power. Jackson demonstrates this by selecting different images of the same events, emphasizing or de-emphasizing certain aspects.
In Is Anybody Gonna Be Saved? (1948 Middle of Voter Registration Line) (1965 Abernathy and King Watch the Signing of the Act), the figures of civil-rights activists Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., printed on blue transparencies, materialize and recede with changing light and viewing angles, appearing almost spectral atop the contrasting red and white voting line. A woman in the middle gazes outward, drawing attention to her fellow voters and conjoining the two images into a collective stand against voter discrimination. While red and blue invoke Republican and Democrat colour-coding, Jackson’s emphasis on colour and light nods to Josef Albers’s instructional text Interaction of Colour (1963). Jackson found similarities between Albers’s descriptions of colour perception and the language used by civil-rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall to address racial segregation. Albeit in vastly different contexts, Marshall and Albers both contend that colour is a relative – not static – entity.
This backstory is beneficial but not essential to grasp the significance of colour relativity to racial discrimination in Jackson’s works. Their shifting and vibrating hues register the fallacy of essentialized concepts of colour that underlay the rhetoric of segregation and continue to enable systemic racism. The paintings are complemented by a recording that alternates Ohio Players songs with conversations between Jackson and local residents, who discuss their experiences as voters and citizens.
Jackson’s interwoven narratives redefine her archival material as a living history of racial injustice in America and the legacies of individuals who have fought against it. Across one work is emblazoned the question: ‘Do you want to vote?’ The struggle for, and stakes of, that right permeate the show. Since the election, as state officials have certified the results despite the current administration’s attempts to undermine them, it is clear that voting rights are something to be protected – a point made all the more urgent as Georgia’s upcoming Senate runoff election will determine the balance of power in Washington, D.C. Jackson’s work is a reminder that maintaining such freedoms requires diligence.