In her largest solo exhibition to date, New York-based artist Steffani Jemison uses the complicated role of language and literacy in black history to explore narration, abstraction, citizenship, education, and the role of the archive. At MASS MoCA, Jemison presents a sound work and an excerpt from a novella, along with her formally stripped-down, conceptually layered, and alluringly enigmatic photographs and drawings. The works center on alternative language systems constructed by black Americans and examines their subversive potential.
Jemison is particularly interested in codes: secret systems of language used to communicate outside dominant power structures. She raises questions of access while reframing silence, privacy, and resistance to interpretation as forms of protest, opposition, self-protection, and spirituality. Jemison’s works at MASS MoCA are inspired in part by “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” an 1831 interview with the leader of the legendary rebellion of slaves and free blacks in Virginia. In his telling, Turner describes the “hieroglyphic characters” that appeared to him on cornstalks and that acted as the divine inspiration for the revolt. Other references in Jemison’s work include the more contemporary work of artist and musician Rammellzee and Clarence13X’s Supreme Alphabet, which the religious leader developed in the 1960s. Passed along by word of mouth, the Supreme Alphabet had secret meanings understood only by the initiated. Jemison will also present a score based on Solresol — a language developed in the early 19th century that was based on the seven notes of the octave, seven colors of the rainbow, and which was meant to be universal.
For Jemison, alternative systems of communication offer a way to think about what is private or public, transparent or opaque, and who or what is included or excluded. These questions influence the materials she uses, which include sheets of acetate that support gestural strokes made with acrylic. The calligraphic shapes appear suspended, floating in mid-air, almost recognizable, with their linguistic meaning obscured. These abstract “drawings” archive the key marks and symbols from Hamptonese — the private language of visionary artist James Hampton — extending Jemison’s multi-year engagement with Hampton’s work. In addition to her works on acetate, which stretch down a gallery wall at MASS MoCA and onto platforms on the floor, Jemison presents a selection of photographs along with an excerpt from her ongoing novella printed in vinyl on the wall. The novella’s title Plant you now, dig you later refers to the black vernacular phrase meaning “see you soon,” and is specifically influenced by Louis Armstrong’s formulation: “And now I’ll do you ‘Just like the Farmer did the Potato — I’ll plant you now and dig you later.’” Influenced by Armstrong’s playful relationship to the English language, the novella teases out connections between literacy, nature, faith, and power.