There's a secret black language on display at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery, put there by the New York artist Steffani Jemison. Hieroglyphs painted in black acrylic on transparent sheets of polyester film are hung on the white walls like long calligraphic scrolls. The scrolls don't stop at the floor but continue to flow along it resting on low, white pedestals that extend outward. The pedestals are subtle but important. They make it so the viewer only ever sees the black language against a white background.
"I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background," Zora Neale Hurston once wrote. "Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself."
Blackness remains itself, and black language private, in Jemison's exhibition. The marks she paints on the scrolls indicate an actual language system but provide no information to translate it, because none exists. In the show's printed handout, Jemison explains that the scrolls reference "Hamptonese," a private script created by James Hampton, a Black man who worked as a janitor and died in 1964 before anyone realized he was an artist. He took the meaning of his language with him.
In the last few years, exhibitions of abstract works by Black artists have popped up all over the country. (The 2014 headline in ARTnews: "The Changing Complex Profile of Black Abstract Painters." The label "Black artist" is both a functional term and itself another case of being thrown against the sharp white background of the art world.) But these exhibitions provide the opportunity to wonder: Does abstraction offer something in particular to artists who are Black?
Black artists have been all but left out of official histories of abstraction, or the abstraction in their works has been overlooked, as is the case with the late Jacob Lawrence, whose history paintings are finally being recognized for their highly abstracted, tightly geometric compositions as well as their stories. Lawrence was included this past summer in Hard Edged: Geometrical Abstraction and Beyond at the California African American Museum.
Lawrence spent his last decades teaching and living in Seattle. Jemison's show is at his namesake gallery, and Lawrence and his late wife, the artist Gwendolyn Knight, are also spiritual hosts to Brenna Youngblood, another New York artist who is showing now in Seattle. Her exhibition is called abstracted realities.
Youngblood is the first abstractionist to win the Gwendolyn Knight | Jacob Lawrence Prize, which every two years awards a young Black artist $10,000 and a solo exhibition at Seattle Art Museum. Since the prize's inception in 2009, Sandra Jackson-Dumont has administered it, even though she's no longer at SAM and now chairman of education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The prize provides important West Coast participation in the ongoing national conversation of Black culture.
Youngblood was a photographer before she was a painter. Her works remain rooted in recognizable things, like a heating grate and peeling brick wallpaper, or the ghostly shapes of wheelchairs (Wintergreen, from 2015, the first one you encounter at SAM: What a painting!).
Against rich, layered colors presented in washes or as actual built-up piles of paint, Youngblood does not insert recognizable things as formal exercises. They trigger associations and moods; they leave an emotional wake.
As Jackson-Dumont told me, "Her use of color and line and form is just, like, the bomb," but "for me, it's the truest sense of abstraction. When I was in graduate school, one of my professors said, 'You know, abstraction comes from somewhere.'"
But by withholding information, abstraction can put a certain quiet on the surface of a work of art.
And that quiet can be useful, argued Kevin Everod Quashie in his 2009 essay "The Trouble with Publicness: Toward a Black Quiet."
"We should be wary of the dominance of expressiveness as a Black aesthetic and of the easy conclusions that it makes possible," he writes. He cites the example of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the two Black athletes who famously raised their fists in the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. They also had their heads bowed, and Smith had his eyes closed, but nobody remembers that—only the fists.
To remember their quieter aspects, he writes, would mean that the men on the podium, in their public expression, become "not only... soldiers in a larger war against oppression, but also... two people in a moment of deep spirituality, in prayer, as vulnerable as they are aggressive, as pensive as they are solidly righteous."
The works of Jemison and Youngblood are both fists and closed eyes, heads bowed.
Jemison's show is titled Sol, in reference to the 19th-century language Solresol, a failed utopian language that was supposed to bridge cultures and even physical disabilities. Its failure, ironically, now makes it the perfect vehicle for private communication.
"How can opacity be used as a strategic political choice?" Jemison said to me at her opening, shortly before her collaborator, the vocal artist Justin Hicks, performed a sound collage that mixed sounds from Solresol with phrases from The Confessions of Nat Turner (the book published by the lawyer who took Turner's testimony on the eve his 1831 execution for leading a slave rebellion).
Related to the performance, Jemison wrote her own opaque call-and-response to Turner's voice in The Confessions, and posted it on the wall as a poem in vinyl letters. She braided her lines with his, alternating them to create a poem.
From The Confessions she chose Turner's discovery of a secret language printed in blood on the crops and leaves in the fields and woods of Virginia. That private, coded conversation between Turner and the landscape mobilized a vital political moment in American history.
Can people divided by the distorting history of race in the United States, which depends on misrepresentation, ever be transparent to each other? Transparency is both subject and medium in Jemison's Stroke: On a series of long vertical strips of clear film, she paints two narrow black rectangles—one near the top, one near the bottom—then folds each plastic sheet loosely in half so that the rectangles intersect. The angles of intersection (sometimes collision, sometimes overlap, sometimes total separation) vary with the individual strips.
The qualities of the rectangles become flexible and metaphorical. Where there is folded transparency between the viewer and the rectangle on the inner surface of the loop, the viewer is reflected on top of that black rectangle. But the rectangles on the front of the clear surfaces remain solidly opaque, blocking reflection, so that the reflected image of the viewer is always partly hidden.
Very temporarily then, Jemison casts a white viewer like me against a sharp black background.