The artist uses paint, archival photographs, marble dust from Greece and soil from an Ohio Underground Railroad site to explore issues of voter disenfranchisement and voter suppression in a new Wexner Center exhibit
Normally, when artist Tomashi Jackson prepares to make work for an exhibition in a new locale, she embeds herself in the community, walking around, taking in the vibe of the place, seeing how it feels. She pays careful attention to her surroundings and listens to the people there to figure out what questions she should be asking. The process gives Jackson clues about what the imagery should be.
So when the spread of COVID-19 prevented Jackson from traveling to Columbus in advance of her new Wexner Center exhibition, “Love Rollercoaster,” the Wex instead brought Ohio to her — sometimes in the transfer of knowledge through long-distance conversations with Ohioans, and sometimes in a more literal sense. At one point, Wexner Curatorial Associate Kristin Helmick-Brunet dug up 7.5 gallons of Ohio soil to send to Jackson.
All along, Jackson knew she wanted to focus on voting. The artist's recent work has explored narratives around democracy, and while initially she expected to center her Wexner show around gerrymandering, through conversations with Ohioans facilitated by the Wex, she began to hear stories about voter disenfranchisement and voter suppression.
“My questions were really simple: Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you now? What do you do? When did you cast your first vote in Ohio? Why did you vote?” Jackson said, noting that all the interviewees talked about going to vote as children alongside their mothers. “They spoke very specifically about the counties and the cities that they were from, and things that happened there. … I saw a pattern of drastic differences and experiences — ups and downs.”
Helmick-Brunet and Wexner COO Megan Cavanaugh began sending Jackson care packages full of election-related ephemera: voter registration forms, instruction guides from Secretary of State Frank LaRose, postcards emblazoned with the phrase “Be a Voter,” posters from Barack Obama’s campaign, materials from Shannon Hardin’s Columbus City Council campaign and more.
“I was like a kid in a candy store,” Jackson said, particularly because the Wex often provided multiple copies of the forms, posters and mailers. “The thing about these materials is that I also see them as historic objects. So sometimes it's hard making the decision, like, ‘What am I going to embed into the surface, forever sealing whatever is on the other side, not to be seen again?’ ... The beautiful thing about the [multiples] is, I was able to experiment in ways that I haven't previously — soaking them in colors, tiling them, building them up on top of each other, obscuring some text while allowing some other text to be seen.”
In five large-scale works now on display at the Wexner Center, Jackson manipulated and layered the election ephemera with enlarged historical photographs related to voting, such as President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and U.S. citizens waiting in long voting lines. “I found an image from the Library of Congress from 1948 of Black people somewhere in the United States lined up to register to vote. … On the sign it says, ‘Do you want to vote? Register here,’” said Jackson, who used the image in three of the five paintings. “Increasingly, I became interested in these lines and learned that Ohio is famous for them.”
Across the painted surfaces, which Jackson mounted on support structures inspired by urban awnings, the artist draped strips of brightly colored translucent vinyl, adding even more depth to the layered pieces she embedded with dirt and dust. The aforementioned soil came from Lucy Depp Park in Powell, a historic site that was part of the Underground Railroad, and the “Pentelic marble dust” originated from the same quarries in Greece (the birthplace of democracy) that led to the construction of ancient Greek monuments, including the Parthenon, which inspired the design of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Not long ago, Jackson visited Athens, Greece, and it led to several revelations regarding democracy. “I was thinking about American democracy as a narrative ideal and American democracy as a violently perverted reality under a very real and historically undeniable umbrella of selective humanism: Some of us get to be considered full human beings, and some of us do not,” she said. “When I was in Athens and spending time with a brilliant archeologist and artist, we walked to the Agora, and she … explained to me how Athenian democracy worked. And I was like, ‘Oh, wow. We just use that word, and it doesn't actually reflect what this democratic experiment was.’ … Everyone [in Greece] was obligated to participate. One who is only concerned with themselves is literally an ‘idiotes,’ or an idiot. That was deeply embedded in the social fabric. … Everyone was expected to vote.”
While Jackson worked on the paintings in “Love Rollercoaster,” she listened to music by the Ohio Players, whose well-known song inspired the name of the exhibition, as well as the titles of the five works: “Time and Space,” “Is Anybody Gonna Be Saved?” “Contradiction,” “Love Rollercoaster” and “I Want to Be Free (O-H-I-O).” (The exhibition title was also inspired by the stomach-dropping, up-and-down nature of the voter experience described in Jackson’s interviews, as well as the long, amusement park-like voting lines.) In the Wex gallery, visitors will hear music from the Ohio Players interspersed with snippets of Jackson’s conversations with Ohio citizens. Nearby, visitors can pick up voter registration forms.
Jackson is also including quotes from Civil Rights icon and former Rep. John Lewis on the gallery walls alongside the five paintings:
“Your vote matters. If it didn't, why would some people keep trying to take it away?”
“The vote is precious. It's almost sacred. It's the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society, and we've got to use it.”