Steffani Jemison: Sensus Plenior
The work of New York-based artist Steffani Jemison is rooted in research and combines time-based media and discursive platforms to examine African-American culture. Exploring the limitations of language, Jemison’s work resists the logic of conventional storytelling to expose the entanglements of time, history and progress. Her new commission Sensus Plenior [Latin for “Fuller Meaning”] considers the relationship between language, gesture and song in black gospel mime, focusing on the work and ideas of ordained minister Susan Webb and the Master Mime Ministry of Harlem. Through their elaborate and ecstatic choreography, 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.
In the black-and-white video, Susan Webb (the performer) is made visible as she goes throughthe motions of performing a routine punctuated by moments of pause, stillness, conversation and laughter. Influenced by Jemison’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. Jemison favours a single-shot, single-take approach, often using the elaborate tropes of repetition, movement, improvisation and entropy found in early cinema. The relationship between the restrained visual narrative and the excessive physical movements of the protagonists opens up a space of ordering and disordering time, an allegory of political progress.
Sensus Plenior is accompanied by an unnerving soundtrack of rhythmic strings, improvised by Mazz Swift (violin) and Brandon Lopez (upright bass) and arranged by Jemison, that disrupts the narrative order. The musicians interpreted the video sequences of pantomimed gestures, allowing for a unique dialogue between separate artistic lexicons, textures and performances. By the close of the video, Webb appears transformed in full-costume; her facial expressions are amplified by the make-up, her movements elevated by their social context. Sensus Plenior centres on the black body’s movement through time and space, and its strangeness is suspended between the balance of distance and intimacy. Resisting the psychologically developed character of modern cinema, the performer reserves the freedom to behave unpredictably, thus drawing attention to the distinction between black private life and black public life.
Jemison’s work is rooted in a black radical tradition that engages philosophical questions of deconstruction and improvisation as the core tenets of what scholar and poet Fred Moten has called “a new Enlightenment”. Shifting beyond the notion of blackness as a space of mere representation, her work explores ideas concerning the movement of the body in social time and space. In the context of the exhibition The Economy of Living Things and the network of interconnected actions defining the timeless globalised world, Jemison’s work makes clear the impossibility of politics without movement. Centring on black bodies, her subjects emerge at the interaction of upheaval and interruption, revealing the boundless potential of gesture in relation to historical progress. This emphasis on the universality of language as it relates to diverse communities and social spaces aligns the work with the practices of “creolisation” and the right to opacity. By forcing open the limitations of language, Jemison’s work continues to explore “otherness” as specific conditions of our contemporary and historical realities.
Press Release, Jeu de Paume, September 2017 © Osei Bonsu, 2017.
Installation views, Steffani Jemison: Sensus Plenior © Jeu de Paume, Photographe Raphaël Chipault