Tomashi Jackson: The Land Claim at the Parrish Art Museum
July 7 to November 7, 2021
79 Montauk Hwy, Water Mill, NY 11976
On a balmy evening this summer at the Parrish Art Museum, in open fields surrounding the museum, the grass swayed to the rhythmic beats and plaintiff chants of an ancient Algonquin ritual, performed by Shane Weeks and Kelly Dennis, members of the Indigenous Shinnecock Nation. The event celebrated the opening of Tomashi Jackson: The Land Claim, an exhibition of the artist’s new multi-media works.
The predominantly white audience of museum members and VIPs intermingled with comparatively diverse groups consisting of members of Jackson’s entourage and representatives of communities that are the focus of the museum’s outreach programs. Stirring prescient memories of historical racial divides, the ritual incantations were intended to remind us that these very fields were once home to Indigenous people living in what have become the “Hamptons,” the necklace of affluent townships strung across the East End. These fields then became the displaced habitat for African American slaves who harvested domestic produce from them. Today, they are workplaces for Latinx workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, fearful about their future, denied the options available to those they serve.
Houston-born Tomashi Jackson (b. 1980) is well known for the prolific social and cultural research that informs her art, most notably for her works at the 2019 Whitney Biennial which explored the destruction in 1850 of Seneca Village, a Black community, to make way for Central Park. When I toured the current exhibition with Corinne Erni, Senior Curator of ArtsReach and Special Projects at the Parrish, she recalled how “Jackson, unfamiliar with the East End community, immediately asked, ‘What is happening here with people of color?’ I told her about the immigration plights of Latino people, often detained by ICE for alleged traffic violations.” This fueled the direction of Jackson’s 2021 artist-in-residence project at the nearby Watermill Center, a laboratory for the arts and humanities where she created the works and organized the archival material for The Land Claim. While this title draws from the ongoing efforts of the Shinnecock Nation to reclaim their land, it relates to the exploitation of various people of color—including Indigenous, Black and Latinx. Jackson spent much of the Covid lockdown interviewing members of these communities virtually. “I learned about multiple issues,” she told me during a telephone interview, “about the Long Island Railroad intruding on land; Indigenous people dispossessed, violated and exploited while resisting and advocating for themselves and others.” From Donnamarie Barnes, curator and archivist at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, Jackson learned that in the seventeenth century the Sylvester family brought enslaved Black people from Barbados to work a provisioning plantation on Shelter Island. Kelly Dennis, an attorney and member of the Shinnecock Nation, told her about the dislocation of Indigenous people from their lands, and the desecration of local burial grounds by developers. And Minerva Perez, Executive Director of OLA (Organization Latino-Americana), updated her about the plight of the Latinx community, their fears of deportation exacerbated by a lack of basic housing, access to public health care, and transportation.
The exhibition begins outdoors, under the eaves of the museum where visitors can listen to an audio montage, simultaneously broadcast stories told by the exhibition’s nine interviewees. Snippets of individual histories intermingle with one another and then, windswept, fade into the very landscape where ancestors once picked potatoes. Something similar occurs visually within the seven multi-media works comprising the exhibition. The narrative, never didactic, evolves as you focus on a particular work. Past merges with the present through Jackson’s deft handling of expressionist color and sculptural materials. Beyond her commitment to social research, however, Jackson is an abstract artist whose merge of form and content is a tour de force.
Consider Three Sisters (2021), constructed on canvas with collaged layers of textiles, paper shopping bags, a storefront-like awning and vinyl strips. Jackson projected photographs of people onto this surface and hand painted their portraits, adding blocks of bold, saturated color, wampum dust, local soil and printed text. The work’s title references an Indigenous method of intercropping three different vegetables—corn, squash and beans— in ways that encourage each variety to thrive. It likewise relates to the integration of ethnic types with tintypes of two early East End Black women residents juxtaposed with more recent photos of women at a Shinnecock family gathering. Jackson layered these portraits on canvas and vinyl strips, painting them with halftone intersecting lines and setting them within and against vivid blocks of orange, yellow, blue and purple. This collision and fusion of abstract color and figuration causes the photographic likenesses to emerge and fade within the composition, depending on the viewer’s focus, a phenomenon that speaks volumes to the ways in which color as a racial marker defines how white society perceives people of color. But according to Jackson, “Indigenous, Black and Latinx people are not invisible or expendable to each other and that is the perspective I’ve been empowered by. The issue that arises here is about value and how value is determined: value is a term used with chromatic color and value refers to how people are regarded.”
Color, used metaphorically and formally in this way, drives these works, but there is more to it than meets the eye. Jackson’s integration of color and social relevance draws distinctly from two treatises: Josef Albers’ color theory and Thurgood Marshall’s stunning opinion in the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown vs The Board of Education, which declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Albers in his landmark book Interaction of Color (1963) demonstrated how color constantly deceives us because color perception is relative to its surroundings. He also proffered that what appears to be transparency when colors overlap is actually a new color, one that combines elements of neighboring hues. There are uncanny similarities between this language and Marshall’s discussion of the gerrymandering of neighborhoods to segregate public schools.
You needn’t know about these influences to appreciate the compelling narratives and the abstraction in Jackson’s works, but the more you understand the connections she makes between the languages of art and the rest of life, the more poignant these works become. For example, the labyrinth of blue lines in Among Protectors (Hawthorne Road and the Pell Case) function like gerrymandered roadblocks framing news stories related to the Shinnecock battle to recover stolen land. In one section of this grid an Indigenous person blocks the advance of a truck to prevent the desecration of Shinnecock land by developers. In another, a photographed figure painted in red on vinyl strips sings in prayer at a development site where Indigenous human remains were unearthed. As halftone lines in sacrificial red interact, as blocks of light and dark blues intersect, the racial realities history so often forgets, collide, collapse and merge. Jackson’s energized abstractions contrast the transparent with the opaque, the figurative with the non-objective, the ordinary with the extraordinary— in terms both painterly and aspirational.
This well-documented, important exhibition includes an archival display of source materials and photographs, many of them reproduced in the seven exhibited works, as well as drawings by Martha Schnee of the individuals Jackson interviewed for this project. A 96-page catalog, due this fall, includes additional scholarly research by Erni and curatorial fellow Lauren Ruiz, as well as the in-depth stories of the nine interviewees. Jackson considers all these curatorial elements, along with her multi-media works, as integral constructs of this project.