In Their Own Words: Jefferson, Whiteness, and Dicks in the Sky

Meet Marisa Williamson. The Harvard-educated assistant professor in the University of Virginia art department works in video, image-making, installation and performance art around themes of “history, race, feminism, and technology,” according to her UVA faculty page. Most recently, she co-curated the EscapeRoom exhibition at the Ruffin Gallery, which we highlight in a companion article.

Williamson, who has worked at UVA since 2018, was one of the first faculty members hired under the “Race, Justice and Equity” initiative made possible by grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

She described her approach to art in a 2021 conversation with Tori Cherry, a Charlottesville artist and UVA Grad, hosted by Charlottesville’s New City Arts.

“One of my big goals is to unsettle and to figure out how to haunt, how to keep things moving, how to agitate through these various forms of performance and monument,” Williamson said.

An early performance in 2013 involved “lurking” around Monticello  — she described the historic home of Thomas Jefferson as “African-American graveyard” — while performing as Sally Hemings. What exactly did this “lurking” look like? In a 2021 “Fireplace” talk with the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Williamson explained how Octavia Butler’s Kindred inspired her performance.

She tried to be a tour guide “in an unconventional way,” which included singing karaoke. “I’m really into how songs, even contemporary music, can somehow disrupt and, as a kind of anomaly or anachronism, can kind of tip people off to something being not quite right on the site,” she said. “It’s slavery and all of the kind of triggering ideas and terms and experiences that come out of this site.”

In the same fireplace talk, Williamson discussed “haunting” UVA as the ghost of Thomas Jefferson.

After the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Williamson said, she became really interested in “whiteness — whiteness as a surface, whiteness as a condition that seemed to have riled a lot of people up.” That’s when she conceived the idea of performing as Thomas Jefferson’s ghost.

“For anyone who’s been to UVA he [Jefferson] feels like he’s just like stalking every corner of the school, and people love him, people mostly seem to be into him there, but [are] also increasingly more ambivalent about his legacy,” she said.

She described how hard it was to embody Jefferson. “I was really interested in what it means to kind of inhabit this person, this kind of historical drag, to try to figure out what — as you know, there are things that were very uncomfortable about inhabiting Sally Hemings but there were things that were also uncomfortable about inhabiting Thomas Jefferson’s ghost — but it allowed me to do this performance at the end where the ghost of Thomas Jefferson makes a case for reparations at UVA.”

At an Artist Talk in 2022, sponsored by the Amelie A. Wallace Gallery at SUNY Old Westbury, Williamson described her goal in portraying Jefferson.

Her motivation, she said, was “in some ways [to] bring down some of these figures we put on pillars like Jefferson, and also to bring up some of these figures in the past like Sally Hemings who have been dehumanized or flattened.”

Williamson is not interested exclusively in race. She also explores feminist themes. In 2021 the Pratt School of Architecture hosted an event called In Search of African American Space where Williamson discussed phallic architecture.

Said Williamson: “You know, everything’s holding the same footprint as slave quarters set off to the side and a kind of phallic something or other hanging out in the distance, which, honestly, if you go to Monticello, another striking space there is the Jefferson family plot. Jefferson is marked there by an obelisk. These things [are] stolen from Africa then become notable here in the U.S., representing, you know, just the dick in the sky.”

Scott Ruff, a professor at the Pratt Institute, and Williamson responded with the observation that the obelisk represents Osiris’ penis. Williamson gushed over the Egyptian Goddess Isis crafting a replacement for Osiris.

“His wife was looking for the pieces of him, couldn’t find the phallus and manufactured one to self-impregnate and produce the next line of this Royal Dynasty,” she said. “So, I find it also a pretty magical object that’s been appropriated and stripped of interesting fem-centered story of immaculate conception through one’s own handiwork. I think it’s so interesting that it’s been appropriated and lost as long as far as I can tell … this woman-centered power move. It’s like a mythical object. It’s amazing.”

Here Williamson discussed the concept of “monuments,” invoking feminist philosopher Audre Lorde and her notion of “The Master’s Tools.”

“I consider the ways that master-type monuments have not worked to dismantle anything — racism, dismantle sexism, dismantle state violence. … What other tools do I know about and what tools can I put to work to try to dismantle his house or instead build something different? …  I’m interested in how to build a monument using different types of materials, so I think for me the monument is about masks and fabric, and sewing, and collaborating, and music and singing and dance. All of those, I think, are not-master-given tools.”

This line of thinking even impacts her work using technology, which Williamson feels is tainted by colonialism.

“Technology, while it has shortcomings and is marked by colonialism, offers us a lot of tools for figuring out how to develop new reading strategies for seeing the unseen,” she said. Technology can be used to “answer the iron and the granite” and “make lasting monuments.”

Williamson discussed University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Professor Tressie McMillan Cottom and her book, Thick: And Other Essays.

“I’ve been thinking about beauty, what are some alternatives to beauty that are actually more compelling and valuable and accessible to people like us, rather than beauty, which Cottom argues is a construct of power designed exclusively for white women, so by trying to achieve it you may be trying to access something not designed for you. Instead, there are lots of other value systems, ways to be powerful that are not necessarily beauty, and I’ve been thinking about that in relationship to painting and art and an art object.”

Williamson unapologetically embraces Critical Race Theory as a framework for her thinking.

“Critical Race Theory is important: looking at things from a frame that considers power dynamics and patterns. But I think parents should get involved. I think kids should get involved. I think people should be trying to make history a living thing in schools rather than a fixed thing. I think it should be something that’s always being reevaluated. It’s a good fight to fight, I think, to figure out what should be taught to kids.”

We conclude with one last clip in which Williamson display a mischievous sense of humor.

She made the video ten years ago. We found no examples of this playfulness in her work at UVA.

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Anne Carson Foard
Anne Carson Foard
27 days ago

Couldn’t bring myself to “like” the article, even though it is a good report, on a very sad person. Someday, someone will take charge of the Hemings discourse and point out that there is no evidence, from DNA or even commentary, that Jefferson and Hemings had any relationship at all, much less a physical one. Had he carried on with a neighbor’s wife, none of these people would care, so once again it’s race weaponized as a political tool.

walter smith
walter smith
27 days ago

And there is more! The expert on the Jefferson Hemings story is a retired UVA professor. He led the “Scholars’ Commission” (13 people I believe). The conclusion was it was almost certainly not true, with one scholar saying it might, maybe, be true. And I don’t entirely care if it were true as Sally was very related to Jefferson’s dead wife. They only care about this to allege rape and hypocrisy, while ignoring what he tried to do to end slavery!
The Jefferson Council has for years wanted a forum where the students could hear the truth, as opposed to the lies told by people like Williamson, the Woodson Institutes Episode 2 in Notes on the State of Virginia, and so many other faculty, including the Provost, who when interviewing for Dean of the College, said he wanted to make UVA known as Sally Hemings University.
Don’t kid yourself that Thomas Jefferson is safe as Jim Ryan likes to say – why does he appoint and hire people who hate Jefferson?

Wahoo
Wahoo
21 days ago

Anne, please see my link above validating Jefferson’s innocence.

Jim Kovalchick
Jim Kovalchick
27 days ago

I have never been more ashamed of Virginia. Jim Ryan must go.

Stu
Stu
27 days ago

It isn’t too often I get to use my Classics Degree, but the idea that an Obelisk has a connection to Osiris or is phallic in nature is not supported anywhere in the academic literature on Egypt. Obelisk are physical representations of sunrays and were built to honor the Sun God, Ra, who the Pharaohs were descended from. This is basic Art History 101.

Herb Griffith
Herb Griffith
27 days ago

Ms. Williamson demonstrates the waste of a perfectly good brain on thoughts limited to thoughts normally found in pre- teens. What a shame to sully the Grounds that way.

Jack Chas
Jack Chas
27 days ago

This is a waste of time and money, and that it even has traction is an insult to serious education. Ryan has again exhibited poor judgment.

The Bootstrap Kid
The Bootstrap Kid
26 days ago
Reply to  Jack Chas

Based on Ryan’s woke, radical beliefs and goals, his judgment was precise and sound.

Walter smith
Walter smith
26 days ago

Ouch!
And true, unfortunately.
I suppose when the BOV fully decided to replace Teresa Sullivan, as opposed to the earlier attempt that was unfortunately (as we now can see) reversed, they thought they were getting someone more moderate – why he clerked at the Supreme Court, and I think for Rehnquist. Unfortunately, again, he was every bit the Leftist Teresa was and far better at implementing it. Plus, he now had a faculty that believed it was in charge of the school based on the Teresa non-removal.
The rot runs so much deeper than 95% of the people know, even those who politically support it. Political gain in education is destruction of education, but the “by any means necessary” crowd only cares about power. And UVA in particular, and society in general, is being destroyed.

Wahoo
Wahoo
21 days ago

To Walter’s point, please take a few minutes to read the summary of “The Scholars Commission” from 2+ decades ago below. This independent study conclusively debunked the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship accusations.

However, UVA and the Monticello Foundation have completely ignored its conclusions. The version promoting an abusive Jefferson owner/slave relationship is more conducive to the Progressives’ desire to relentlessly denigrate our Founding Fathers.
https://www.tjheritage.org/the-scholars-commission.