In Their Own Words: Jefferson, Whiteness, and Dicks in the Sky

Meet Marisa Williamson. The Harvard-educated assistant professor in the University of Virginia art department works in video, image-making, installation and performance art around themes of “history, race, feminism, and technology,” according to her UVA faculty page. Most recently, she co-curated the EscapeRoom exhibition at the Ruffin Gallery, which we highlight in a companion article.

Williamson, who has worked at UVA since 2018, was one of the first faculty members hired under the “Race, Justice and Equity” initiative made possible by grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

She described her approach to art in a 2021 conversation with Tori Cherry, a Charlottesville artist and UVA Grad, hosted by Charlottesville’s New City Arts.

“One of my big goals is to unsettle and to figure out how to haunt, how to keep things moving, how to agitate through these various forms of performance and monument,” Williamson said.

An early performance in 2013 involved “lurking” around Monticello  — she described the historic home of Thomas Jefferson as an “African-American graveyard” — while performing as Sally Hemings. What exactly did this “lurking” look like? In a 2021 “Fireplace” talk with the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Williamson explained how Octavia Butler’s Kindred inspired her performance.

She tried to be a tour guide “in an unconventional way,” which included singing karaoke. “I’m really into how songs, even contemporary music, can somehow disrupt and, as a kind of anomaly or anachronism, can kind of tip people off to something being not quite right on the site,” she said. “It’s slavery and all of the kind of triggering ideas and terms and experiences that come out of this site.”

In the same fireplace talk, Williamson discussed “haunting” UVA as the ghost of Thomas Jefferson.

After the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Williamson said, she became really interested in “whiteness — whiteness as a surface, whiteness as a condition that seemed to have riled a lot of people up.” That’s when she conceived the idea of performing as Thomas Jefferson’s ghost.

“For anyone who’s been to UVA he [Jefferson] feels like he’s just like stalking every corner of the school, and people love him, people mostly seem to be into him there, but [are] also increasingly more ambivalent about his legacy,” she said.

She described how hard it was to embody Jefferson. “I was really interested in what it means to kind of inhabit this person, this kind of historical drag, to try to figure out what — as you know, there are things that were very uncomfortable about inhabiting Sally Hemings but there were things that were also uncomfortable about inhabiting Thomas Jefferson’s ghost — but it allowed me to do this performance at the end where the ghost of Thomas Jefferson makes a case for reparations at UVA.”

At an Artist Talk in 2022, sponsored by the Amelie A. Wallace Gallery at SUNY Old Westbury, Williamson described her goal in portraying Jefferson.

Her motivation, she said, was “in some ways [to] bring down some of these figures we put on pillars like Jefferson, and also to bring up some of these figures in the past like Sally Hemings who have been dehumanized or flattened.”

Williamson is not interested exclusively in race. She also explores feminist themes. In 2021 the Pratt School of Architecture hosted an event called In Search of African American Space where Williamson discussed phallic architecture.

Said Williamson: “You know, everything’s holding the same footprint as slave quarters set off to the side and a kind of phallic something or other hanging out in the distance, which, honestly, if you go to Monticello, another striking space there is the Jefferson family plot. Jefferson is marked there by an obelisk. These things [are] stolen from Africa then become notable here in the U.S., representing, you know, just the dick in the sky.”

Scott Ruff, a professor at the Pratt Institute, and Williamson responded with the observation that the obelisk represents Osiris’ penis. Williamson gushed over the Egyptian Goddess Isis crafting a replacement for Osiris.

“His wife was looking for the pieces of him, couldn’t find the phallus and manufactured one to self-impregnate and produce the next line of this Royal Dynasty,” she said. “So, I find it also a pretty magical object that’s been appropriated and stripped of interesting fem-centered story of immaculate conception through one’s own handiwork. I think it’s so interesting that it’s been appropriated and lost as long as far as I can tell … this woman-centered power move. It’s like a mythical object. It’s amazing.”

Here Williamson discussed the concept of “monuments,” invoking feminist philosopher Audre Lorde and her notion of “The Master’s Tools.”

“I consider the ways that master-type monuments have not worked to dismantle anything — racism, dismantle sexism, dismantle state violence. … What other tools do I know about and what tools can I put to work to try to dismantle his house or instead build something different? …  I’m interested in how to build a monument using different types of materials, so I think for me the monument is about masks and fabric, and sewing, and collaborating, and music and singing and dance. All of those, I think, are not-master-given tools.”

This line of thinking even impacts her work using technology, which Williamson feels is tainted by colonialism.

“Technology, while it has shortcomings and is marked by colonialism, offers us a lot of tools for figuring out how to develop new reading strategies for seeing the unseen,” she said. Technology can be used to “answer the iron and the granite” and “make lasting monuments.”

Williamson discussed University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Professor Tressie McMillan Cottom and her book, Thick: And Other Essays.

“I’ve been thinking about beauty, what are some alternatives to beauty that are actually more compelling and valuable and accessible to people like us, rather than beauty, which Cottom argues is a construct of power designed exclusively for white women, so by trying to achieve it you may be trying to access something not designed for you. Instead, there are lots of other value systems, ways to be powerful that are not necessarily beauty, and I’ve been thinking about that in relationship to painting and art and an art object.”

Williamson unapologetically embraces Critical Race Theory as a framework for her thinking.

“Critical Race Theory is important: looking at things from a frame that considers power dynamics and patterns. But I think parents should get involved. I think kids should get involved. I think people should be trying to make history a living thing in schools rather than a fixed thing. I think it should be something that’s always being reevaluated. It’s a good fight to fight, I think, to figure out what should be taught to kids.”

We conclude with one last clip in which Williamson displays a mischievous sense of humor.

She made the video ten years ago. We found no examples of this playfulness in her work at UVA.

This article is republished with permission from The Jefferson Council blog.