Critics’ Picks

Steffani Jemison, Same Time, 2018, acrylic on polyester film, 24” x 20”.

Steffani Jemison, Same Time, 2018, acrylic on polyester film, 24” x 20”.


Steffani Jemison

Iceberg Projects
7714 N Sheridan Road
September 16–October 21, 2018

In this exhibition, Steffani Jemison presents a new iteration of her ongoing research into the alternative literacies of Black Americans from slavery to the present—a legacy wherein individual actors have invented mechanisms to construct, communicate, and preserve knowledge outside white-supremacist power structures. Jemison, in fixing on moments where language has opened tiny cracks in prevailing narratives, stakes out a space of quiet possibility in which to consider the imaginative and resistant potential of words, notations, and their corresponding sounds.

Though willfully spare in their material presentation, Jemison’s works are dense with research and references to the Black radical tradition, drawing on such figures as Omar ibn Said, the enslaved Islamic scholar who filled the walls of his North Carolina prison cell with Arabic writing. In works from Jemison’s series “Same Time,” 2016–, expressive renderings of acrylic on polyester film refer to what she calls the “private script” of hieroglyphs developed by James Hampton, an African American artist and custodian best known for having spent fourteen years in the 1950s and 1960s fashioning, out of found materials, a massive, glittering throne inspired by his religious visions. Equal parts drawing and writing, the series suggests the latent legibility of immediate, intuitive mark-making.

Elsewhere, a large draped painting on velvet carries the slightly misspelled biblical words “unto the third and forth,” while a dissonant sound installation and two small, dense mixed-media prints on glass, WLD (turn back) and WLD (content aware), both 2018, invite manifold associations with the “word” wld (wild, world, would), which Jemison has excerpted from coded notes found in the pocket of a formerly presumed illiterate Saint Louis man, Ricky McCormick, at the time of his murder in 1999. Jemison proposes that such slippages in syntax and spelling are the keys to a broader understanding of language’s violent hold on written history, as well as perhaps a key to its undoing.