Published  13/03/2015

Marisa Williamson: ‘I want to make history alive in people’s worlds’

Marisa Williamson: ‘I want to make history alive in people’s worlds’

The performance artist talks about leaving Los Angeles to start a course at the Whitney Museum in New York, and her latest project, in which she takes on the role of Sally Hemings, slave and mistress to President Thomas Jefferson


Marisa Williamson works in performance, video, sculpture and photography. She often combines some or all of these to use narrative, language and myth as problem-solving tools to explore history, the psychology of the mind and the physicality of the body. Williamson has an ongoing body of work that looks at the psychological and physical reality of the life and role that Sally Hemings – a freed slave and mistress to President Thomas Jefferson – played in early American history; this work takes shape across various mediums and locations.  

A Will Brown: Over the past few years, you have been building an impressive and engaging body of work around the life of Sally Hemings. Can you tell us who she was, what brought you to her story, and why has it remained a central focus of your work?

Marisa Williamson: Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s mistress and slave. They had a relationship that spanned almost 40 years, and she bore four children who lived to adulthood. I was really interested in the silent legacy of the woman who undoubtedly experienced slavery in a uniquely violent way – not as a victim of whippings or rape in the strictest sense, but someone who, not unlike many women, then and now, had to leverage what very little power she had to secure survival and an optimal quality of life for herself and her children. She is not a radical or revolutionary figure compared to others, but so few people are – and the privileging of radicality often overlooks the very importance of stories of creativity, compromise, survival and decision-making, which make up so much of America’s history. These types of stories and their retelling, re-enactment and reimagining, are part of my feminist and anticolonial efforts to reclaim and self-narrativise that which feels, even now, to be appropriated by victors. I like imagining – and it’s not that far from the documented truth – that Sally and Thomas had a close relationship. She might have been witness to the drafting of the words [first used by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence] “all men are created equal”, which would be the sole and most empowering promise of equality on to which she, or any oppressed American, could hitch their hope for justice in subsequent centuries. She wasn’t subject to the commonly talked about violences, but would have felt double consciousness very brutally. She would have made compromises daily to maintain certain privileges. I’m interested in narratives of choice and agency. Sally had the option of remaining in Paris after Jefferson had served there as a diplomat for two years. She decided to return to Virginia. I wanted, through the work, to cross-examine the one-dimensionality often ascribed to historical figures. I wanted to give shape, through mimetic and metonymic gestures, to the character. I play Sally as a hybrid of myself and her. The work may have as much of an effect on me as it does on the viewers, as far as providing insight not only into how history is understood, but how it is felt.

AWB: The idea of feeling history is a compelling and novel one. Can you elaborate on that a bit? What does it mean to create a nearly, or actually, haptic, and startlingly emotional experience for a viewer? This sense of overlapping history with emotion and perceived v actual narrative is compelling.

MW: I do a lot of research and reading on visual theory, history and philosophy. There are many ways of receiving information. I consider my role as an artist to be one of supplementing the available information – the stuff you can read, see in a movie, hear on the radio – with an immersive, responsive and interactive experience. I want to make history alive in people’s worlds. I want to make the black body an alive and immediate body in people’s worlds. Every day in New York, I see the distance between black people and other groups, and I am guilty myself of forcing distance, crossing streets, keeping my head down. There is a long history of residential segregation that I’m very interested in addressing. Suffice it to say, I think that playing Hemings allows me to lean into my own discomfort, press discomfort on to others, and force a confrontation between the black body that looks historical, the contemporary black woman miming history, and the audience, who must reconcile their own mimetic tendencies.

AWB: Much of your work takes shape as moving images, often video. What is it about video that is attractive to you? How do video and other mediums you work in – performance, photography, sculpture – capture your conceptual aims?

MW: I really started working with video in middle and high school, making documentaries and a music video. As soon as my family got a computer, I became absorbed in making art on it. I like video for its ability to posit a truth claim. It’s slippery, deceptive and good for storytelling. I like using found footage to make video montages – making use of images already out in the environment, no new art. The montage has a long history in conceptual art. I feel operational in that art-historical vein, as well as in a completely pop-cultural vein. Music videos, YouTube, commercials, informational videos and cinema are all sources of inspiration. Hito Steyerl’s essay In Defense of the Poor Image is very important to me, as are texts by Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer and Bertolt Brecht, for their exploration of the role of the photographic image in history. I get a lot out of [German film-maker] Harun Farocki’s work. He did important things for me with the medium. It’s still hard for me to accept that I’m a performance artist. Performance is the most challenging part of my practice. Unlike an object, I can’t stand back from it until it is already being consumed by the audience. Vulnerability and discomfort are things I want to make public. I want to externalise the process of subject formation for a viewer who might not be aware that it’s a constant reality for most people. I learn a lot from the performance work I make: I’m not sure I’m fully aware of what it does still. As far as objects, the objects I make seem, in the past few years, to have been wholly in service of the performance practice. Although, in the last year of grad school I made a sculpture with a collaborator that I absolutely love, CalArts Monument. It was performative in a lot of ways – a protest against mindless policing and inept administration on campus. I have it on some to-do list somewhere to expand on my object-making a little more deliberately.

AWB: What would you describe as the central aims of your work? What are the ideas and issues that most fascinate you and that you explore in your work?

MW: I was talking today with a fellow artist, Park McArthur, about whether the goal in identity-based work is to make the viewer identify with the artist and the struggle the artist is engaged in, or whether “identification with” is problematic. Is there an equivalency of experience? Is a reliance on a metaphoric connection problematic? Why would a viewer want to identify with another subject position? What is the nature of that desire? What does someone hope to find inside me, or Hemings and her experience? I’ve also been thinking about the didactic. I do a lot of teaching, and my work is definitely informed by it. I work with students on an almost daily basis as a museum educator and art educator. I’ve been wondering whether one of my roles as a teacher has become the cultivation of an audience for my own work. Or, of course, should my work create its own audience? I’ve also been talking with friends about abstraction versus representation in the art of politically engaged artists. If you want to communicate, what are the advantages of one strategy over another? I’ve been reading Darby English, a short essay by  Adrienne Edwards in Art in America, and other stuff on the topic.

AWB: You have recently started the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in New York City. What has the shift from Los Angeles to New York been like for you? Has the programme changed your work, working methods, ideas and approach?

MW: The programme is really interesting. The people are amazing. It definitely appears to have some cult-like cachet from the outside. From within, the mystery is exposed as largely performative – which makes it nonetheless intense and confusing on a daily basis. Its focus is neo-Marxism, which, when you’ve recently moved to the most cutthroat city, recommitted yourself to the elective precariousness of life as an artist, are working two jobs, marching to protest against police brutality, hiding from the loan police, and eating ramen every night – is a pertinent, and yet frustratingly abstract, philosophy to try to navigate without getting worked up. The readings and visitors we’ve been exposed to in the past semester have definitely pushed my thinking and my practice in excellent directions. I’ve situated Hemings in a capitalist landscape more consciously. She is moving in and out of time and dialoguing with more people. I’ve had to think more about the art industrial landscape, the market, the politics of material, immaterial and social labour. I liked Los Angeles a lot. It was warm and relaxed and the light was transcendent. I miss the community of CalArts alumni and professors. New York is very different – colder, more dirty, more immediate. But my community here is also top notch, incredibly diverse and full of momentum. It’s hard not to get caught up in the stream of unapologetically rigorous thinking and the weird enthusiasm for making things as complicated and deep as possible.

AWB: What is at stake for you as an artist? Why go down this road and not another? Who led you here? What peers, professors, mentors and artistic figures have had the most meaningful impact on you and your work?

MW: What is as stake for me as an artist is similar to what’s at stake for me as a person. I’m trying to connect with people. I’m seeking agency in my subject formation. I’m trying to illustrate, argue, add dimension to, and re-present contemporary issues using the tools at hand. I’m trying to have fun. I’m trying to be here, and have the here be a place that feels like home. I’m an artist educator and, through that work, I’m trying to create audiences for the type of work I like and believe in. I’m trying to give young people the critical reasoning skills they need to be engineers in their own lives and the lives of others. I’m trying to help them learn to see what is and isn’t there. I’m influenced by many people – including Octavia Butler, Fred Wilson, Carrie Mae Weems, Walter Benjamin, Kara Walker, Charles Gaines and Glenn Ligon – and also by the internet, my peers, my friends in other industries. I’m meaningfully impacted by a pretty diverse and widespread cohort of people.

AWB: There is an element of subtle humour, at times bordering on the absurd and the uncomfortable, in much of your work. In your 2013 video and performance What Would Sally Do?, we see you dressed and acting as Hemings, while singing a ballad with an unplugged microphone, on the grounds of Jefferson’s Monticello [the president’s plantation]. This scene conveys both a tongue-in-cheek humour and an intense seriousness. Can you describe how humour plays into your ideas?

MW: I really like to laugh. I learn a lot from laughter, and I think most people do, too. It’s a point of entry. Also, satire and parody have always been the tools of political critique. Throughout history, they are the forms that have belonged to the underdogs and the oppressed. I went to an interesting performance and panel a few weeks ago – Vanessa Place’s The Ontology of the Rape Joke. It got me rethinking the humour in my work from a much more critical angle. I’m really not sure how it always functions from one funny moment to the next, but it seems natural somehow and part of a collection of timeless discourses – the negotiation of trauma, mediation of conflict, the turning of language and imagery back on itself, demystification, and the insistence of pleasure even in moments of pain, as part of a claim to freedom even where freedom is tenuous. Can Hemings laugh? Can you laugh at her?

AWB: Your 2013 project Auction appears like a sort of culmination for much of the work you have been doing about Hemings, although not an end to it. In Auction, you created a real auction for which you played your now familiar role, in full dress, of Hemings, and auctioned off objects that replicate possessions belonging to Jefferson. I assume you made the props, objects and components that represented faux historical artefacts? Was this a new thing for you, and how do you see yourself continuing with this line of historically based fictional object-making?

MW: Yes, for Auction, I made props – handkerchiefs, stockings, a set of pillowcases, two love letters. For each object, I composed a narrative describing the role of the object in the relationship. There’s also the painting of Hemings receiving oral sex from Jefferson. That’s been a pivotal piece in the project. I would like very much to continue making objects. This summer, I’m hoping to do some work at Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop. I’d like to make printed matter inspired by Hemings – print projects she would make.

AWB: How did the performed auction go? What was the audience like?

MW: The audience was great! I was so nervous that the people wouldn’t bid. Clifford Owens, who had coordinated the group performances, had warmed me that the performance might be seen as gimmicky. So, I was a little stressed, but also largely very confident in my vision for the work. Fortunately, people bid, and laughed at the right moments, and squirmed when appropriate. I was interested in a dynamic where an artist is positioning herself as marketer of her own work. Modern notions of precarity, need, desperation, fetishisation, and artist salesmanship were on my mind, as well as the historical citation of the auction block as the site where slaves were traded. I read from a script, but would improvise when it was time to conduct the bidding, goading people on. Winning bidders approached the lectern after the auction and paid for their goods with cash or credit cards. I had one of those iPhone card-reader attachments. It was important for me to sustain the anachronistic, incongruous, hybrid nature of my Hemings through the breaks in performative style and through the use of small but significant technologies.

AWB: Have you received much pushback from this and the Hemings works, either from peers, viewers, or friends?

MW: I’ve had no significant pushback, which, of course, could mean I’m doing something wrong. I did have a tough meeting with [the New York-based performance artist] Andrea Fraser who was critical of the way I performed the character. She said the performances seemed too smooth and confident. I was surprised because I’m always painfully nervous when performing. To be read as confident was flattering. But the observation did make me think about why I present Sally the way I do. She is well spoken, not particularly dramatic, very measured and fairly rehearsed. This is how I generally perform in my daily life as Marisa the artist. Having worked as an educator for years, knowing the power of a well-formed thought, well-picked words, and knowing that to be successful in the worlds I inhabit means insisting, from moment to moment, on my right to speak and be seen informs my view of how Sally might also have performed in the worlds she inhabited. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about code-switching and the body as a site of translation. I look forward to incorporating those themes into future performances in order to highlight this demand for artistry when it comes to linguistically and physically navigating different, and sometimes inhospitable, environments.

AWB: Have you seen any great exhibitions recently? What kinds of exhibitions and shows do you tend to find interesting?

MW: I’ve seen some great theatre performances. New York is really blowing my mind on that front. I’ve seen Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Musicand The Civilians’ Pretty Filthy, a musical documentary about the porn industry in the San Fernando Valley.

AWB: What are you working on now in the studio? What is next for you in terms of exhibitions, projects, collaborations and residencies?

MW: I just worked with some LA friends on a portion of an audio project, a fake radio show with a well-meaning but latently bigoted show host who gets schooled by a college professor character, played by me. I’m on the road with my Hemings in Paris film. I went to Paris last spring and documented Hemings’s interactions with black people in Paris, tourist, US expats and French Africans. It was screened at Vox Populi in Philadelphia at the end of February and hopefully it will be screened in New York and Los Angeles in the months to come. I’m at a really early stage of brainstorming for a project that would consist of an ongoing series of collaborations with my dad, who is an artist. I’m also thinking of doing museum and walking tours as Hemings. There are always a lot of projects floating around in my brain.

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