History Speaks

October 19, 2021

Artist Marisa Williamson poses as the "Ghost of Thomas Jefferson."

Multimedia artist and University of Virginia Professor of Visual Arts Marisa Williamson won national acclaim using combinations of performance, video, sculpture, and photography to explore marginalized histories, the psychology of the mind, and the physicality of the body — almost always with an eye toward issues of feminism and Blackness.

The 36-year-old will be delivering the annual College of Visual and Performing Arts Fall Lecture on the topic of “Unsettling Grounds”  at 7 p.m on Tuesday Oct. 26. in Francis Auditorium. 

Artist Marisa Williamson poses as the "Ghost of Thomas Jefferson."

Williamson’s most famous work to date centered around Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman owned by Thomas Jefferson with whom he had a 40-year relationship and parented at least six children. The series varied broadly in scope and focus. 

Williamson began by spending the early 2010s using different mediums to explore Hemings’ life and inhabit her persona. The resulting oeuvre included silent performance pieces, small plays, interactive critical walking tours among historic landscapes, films, photographic collections, and more. 

“I was really interested in the silent legacy of the woman who undoubtedly experienced slavery in a uniquely violent way,” Williamson told Studio International Magazine in a 2015 interview. Hemings wasn’t “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 isn’t a radical or revolutionary figure compared to others, but so few people are,” continued Williamson. “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.” 

Marisa Williamson playing Sally Hemings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Williamson calls retelling, re-enacting, and reimagining such stories part of her “feminist and anticolonial effort to reclaim and self-narrativise that which feels, even now, to be appropriated by victors.”

She took the approach a step further in 2018: For The Ghost of Thomas Jefferson, Williamson roamed UVA’s campus in a ghoulish powdery white costume reminiscent of a statue come-to-life. The effort was documented in a 48-page book of photographic postcards, wherein  the ghost could be seen haunting Jefferon’s architectural works, eponymous landmarks, and more.    

“I adopted the persona to present the ubiquitous figure in a new light,” wrote Williamson in the book’s forward. “Questions of ‘whiteness’ and its material, aesthetic, and political value; history and its echoes in the present day; and identity as a construct of narrative were on my mind while developing these images.”

From left: Artist Marisa Williamson; Williamson playing "The Ghost of Thomas Jefferson."

Williamson’s work has been exhibited at esteemed institutions like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in New York, Philadelphia’s Vox Populi, the Mana Contemporary in Chicago, and the Stefania Miscetti gallery in Rome. It’s been praised by critics like Charles Mudede for its “capacity to map the past onto geographies of the present to interrogate the material and immaterial possibilities of inheritance, memory, and storytelling.”

Dean of MBU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts Paul Menzer said he was thrilled to feature Williamson at this year’s fall lecture. 

“This is an exciting opportunity for students and [MBUFamily members] to hear from an exciting contemporary artist who’s doing incredibly important work,” said Menzer. Accordingly, Willimason will speak about making art that is “rooted in questions of authority, parafiction, freedom and its opposite(s), race, gender, labor, and love through a historical lens.”

 

**This event is open to the public. However, all visitors ages 12 and older must show proof that they have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to visit our campus during indoor events or provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the event. Our full visitors’ policy can be found HERE.