A prompt, a parameter, a choreography, Black One Shot (b.O.s.) has been our ongoing concentration on the art of blackness. We value the complications, ambiguities, and ambivalences on which the art of blackness thrives. As we’ve said, our physics of black study amplifies the critical resonance of objects (centripetal) over the insistence on what objects must do (centrifugal). X = Object love + art of blackness criticism ≅ disassociate, distend, demand, refract, rejoice. Solve for X in no more than 1000 words.
b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2022 for five consecutive weeks. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Alexandra Kingston-Reese and Wiktoria Tunska.
—Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)
Exasperated and pissed off best encapsulates artist Veronica Jackson’s mood when she told me that her uncle had the audacity to dismiss her recently deceased grandmother Betta Jefferson’s claim to her husband Thomas’ (Jackson grandfather’s) pension: “When discussing my 96-year-old grandmother’s monthly finances, my mother made a reference to ‘Mama’s money.’ In response, my uncle disrespectfully stated, ‘That’s not Mama’s money, THAT’S POPS’S MONEY!’”1
Instead of acknowledging the physical and emotional labor of his mother as a catalyst for the family’s survival and prosperity, her uncle summarily erased any contribution Betta Jefferson may have made to her husband’s life and work but also in acquiring the land, home, furniture, household objects, knowledge, or monies that were now slated to be passed on to him and the rest of the family. As Hortense Spillers notes, “‘Family,’ as we practice and understand it ‘in the West’—the vertical transfer of a bloodline, of a patronymic, of titles, and entitlements, or real estate and prerogatives of ‘cold cash,” from fathers to sons, and in the supposedly free exchange of affectional ties between a male and female of his choice—becomes the privilege of a free and freed community.”2 To Jackson, her uncle’s claims demonstrated once again how Black women continue to be rendered invisible in public, institutional, and domestic spaces.
Jackson’s rumination on her grandmother’s invisibilized labor culminated in the piece, That’s Pops’s Money, part of her ongoing project “The Burden of Invisibility.” To make visible and tell the story of her grandmother’s familial love, dedication, and work and to refute the patriarchal mythos of her uncle’s misremembrance, Jackson designed and printed inked timecards—one for each month of the sixty-seven years that Betta was married to her husband Thomas. Trained as an architect who led her own exhibition design firm for over twenty years, Jackson is acutely aware of how language communicates the power of public history and shapes its perceptions. Putting her interpretive history skills to work in That’s Pops’s Money, Jackson designed each timecard to account for the daily activities that occupied her grandmother’s routines over the course of one month. Betta “washed clothes,” “shopped for food,” “attended church,” “tended the garden,” “ raised children,” “cooked the meals,” and performed “‘wifely duties.’” With each time card Jackson painstakingly reconstructs what she imagines to have been the domestic labor that disappeared from familial memory and social history.
That’s Pops’s Money is part archive of and part memorial to her grandmother’s life and work. It follows in the spirit of conceptual artist Tehching Hsieh’s durational performances of the 1970s and 1980s. Hsieh worked in and around Lower Manhattan and initiated a series of intense repetitive performances, such as living in a solitary confinement cell inside his studio or living outdoors, never entering a building or public transportation over the span of one year. Hsieh tested the limits of his mental and bodily capacity within the mundane and regimented timespace of the post-industrial city. For Time Clock Piece (One Year Performance) 1980-1981, Hsieh punched a timeclock and took a photo every hour for the entire year. I, like Jackson, saw this work installed at the Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale in 2017. The scale and scope of the repeated portraits and timecards that metricized the hours and days of Hsieh’s life was nothing less than riveting. It made visible the ways that capitalism quantifies bodies as it locates them in space and time, much like how captive Africans, who, over the four hundred year course of the transatlantic slave trade were racialized in order to be abstracted into fungible items for sale and trade. And like Betta Jefferson, Hsieh’s labor, as an undocumented worker who arrived in U.S. after jumping off a ship from Taiwan, was deliberately, systemically invisibilized.
While Hsieh appropriated a timeclock apparatus designed for the documentation of factory labor to record every hour of his life for a year, Jackson creates her own timecards as a means of not only recording, but also re-enactingthe labor of her grandmother as a commemorative practice. Jackson hand-cut all of the 813 cards out of black paper that she then mounted on twelve panels hung on the gallery walls. On each card, she hand embossed with blue ink Betta’s full name, her job title as “wife, mother, homemaker,” and the name of her “supervisor”/husband: Thomas Jefferson. The visual field of black cards is interrupted by the occasional appearance of texts in white ink that announces Betta’s marriage to Thomas in October 1939, his death in August 2006, and the birth of Betta’s five sons. The birth of her four daughters is rendered in black ink. The overall lack of contrast between the blue and black inks on the black paper is analogous to the illegibility of Betta Jefferson’s work and Black women’s work in general. As a consequence of Jackson’s aesthetic choice, viewers must work to see and make sense of the documentation of Betta’s daily routines as accounted for across the walls. Through this strategic representation of blue ink embossed on heavy black paper, Jackson conveys her grandmother’s devotion to family and care as a melancholic mood, an aftereffect of the burdens of invisibility.
These handmade timecards, Jackson’s careful creations, are 813 acts of remembrance, 813 gestures of love. Her homage to Black women’s caretaking asks the viewer to engage what Tina Campt labels as “a black gaze,” one whose temporality “requires sustained and durational processes of reflection.”3 Through the labor of her mark making, Jackson tallies for herself, for her family, and for us a poignant commemoration of her grandmother, of the many Black grandmothers, mothers, and aunties who not only labored for their own families but who, like my grandmother, did domestic work for white families. Those hands and that labor of Black women fed us, clothed us, and loved us—That’s Pops’s Money makes visible and honors that lost and forgotten legacy.
This is one of four essays from the seventeenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays from this transmission here:
Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie have been collaborating since 2017 come hell or high water. Lisa is Associate Professor of Art History at Whitman College and wrote Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (2015) and most recently, “Unknowing Wastelands in Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum.” Michael will start in the fall of 2022 as Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016) and most recently, consulting producer for the Criterion Collection release of Shaft.