Steffani Jemison (born in Berkeley, United States, in 1981), who is based in New York, combines time-based media and discursive platforms to examine African-American culture. Interrogating the limitations of language, Jemison’s work resists the logic of conventional storytelling to expose the entanglements of time, history and progress. The new commission she produced for the Satellite programme, Sensus Plenior (Latin for “fuller meaning”), considers the relationship between language, gesture and song in black gospel pantomime, focusing on the work and ideas of Reverend Susan Webb and the Master Mime Ministry of Harlem. Through their elaborate and ecstatic choreography, the gospel mime performers draw on dual genealogies that can be traced both to the revolutionary mime artist Marcel Marceau and West African dance traditions.
In her videos, Jemison complicates the boundaries of performance and cinema, allowing the audience to become suspended outside structures of linear time and controlled meaning. Emerging from the artist’s interest in silent cinema, the video opens a new line of enquiry into mime as a space that unveiled the performance of the self and the limits of speech at the turn of the twentieth century. During the period of rapid modernisation and shifting aesthetic hierarchies, cinema and pantomime were described as “silent” art forms sharing specific characteristics. Centring on black bodies, her subjects emerge at the intersection of upheaval and interruption, revealing the boundless potential of gesture in relation to historical progress.
Drawing on Jemison’s exploration of literacy and revelation, the video is accompanied by acrylic wall drawings engaging with the undeciphered personal writings of “outsider” artist James Hampton. Through engaging with language as a universal form, Jemison’s practice seeks to connect diverse communities and social spaces while assimilating the practices of “creolisation” and the “right to opacity” championed by Édouard Glissant. By forcing open the limitations of language, Jemison’s work continues to explore “otherness” as a specific condition of our contemporary and historical realities.