“You can play in the past”: An interview with artist Marisa Williamson

Marisa Williamson is a New York based American artist who works in video and performance. Her work revolves around questions of the African-American experience, female representation, and historical narratives. Williamson’s 2017 performance piece “Sweet Chariot” for Philadelphia’s Monument Lab created the protagonist Amelia Brown, who leads visitors throughout Philadelphia using a smart app to show videos about Brown’s journey to freedom.


It started as Monument Lab…they were doing a project where they were going to get 20 artists together to create prototype monuments to get to the question of what is an appropriate monument for the city of Philadelphia…pointing out some of the things missing, there’s only three monuments to real women in Philadelphia…


…and at first I’d been making work about Sally Hemmings (she’s the enslaved mother of President Thomas Jefferson’s children), I’ve been doing this performance work for five years or so where I was going to sites and in the costume of Sally Hemmings, not re-enactments – it’s too bland, not to unify a site such that people have an authentic experience of “the past” but instead to re-enact to disrupt and trouble these historical sites…

I’ve been really interested in how many ghosts visible, where I think their presence is felt by me. I don’t know if that sounds very metaphysical but the ghosts of the enslaved, the ghosts of freedom fighters, the ghosts of people who make it possible for me to occupy those spaces now, at museums and then in historical site…How depression or the blues might be something Sally Hemmings would know about and how to make performance work that exorcises or makes visible how Sally Hemmings might have been a kind of troubled sad person…How the colonial past would have shaped her life and how the colonial past shapes my life today, and if I could substitute myself for her in these spaces can I show people something about how the colonial past is still alive around us, so that’s what I was doing.

…and then Sweet Chariot – so they were like what do you think you’d make for Monument Lab and I was trying to get away from the Sally Hemmings work so I was just thinking a little bit about telling bigger stories. I’m from Philadelphia, so I was interested in stories I’d heard as a kid, things I didn’t know…I knew that Philadelphia was a hub for the Underground Railroad.

I thought if I could pull together some people, use the methodology I’d used to make this Sally Hemmings performance work, use that to bring together a bunch of voices from the past, I might be able to tell, learn something myself, and then tell a story about black history in Philadelphia that was a chorus of voices…

Monument Lab was like we have these sites that artists can work from, that we’d like to unearth, and Weccacoe playground (Mother Bethel AME Burial Ground) had been discovered recently…So I proposed a kind of swing set where kids would swing on the swings and then jump off the swings onto a map, the idea of the map being, represents the city…the idea of kids still playing on a solemn site. I didn’t want to lose this, the idea that you can play in the past and in solemn spaces, even as they are sacred in some way.

But then they said I couldn’t build anything…I was like what would that same project be if it weren’t physical, so I started to think about a game or something in an app…I thought about a walk, a tour.  I found in the research there was this woman buried at Weccacoe burial ground, Amelia Brown. There’s her headstone has been found so it’s like ‘okay maybe that’s a character who can guide people through Philadelphia.’


… I went to visit them (developers) and they were like we do augmented realities, I was like ‘ooh that’s interesting,’ putting things in augmented reality, so that you can see things that aren’t there, using your phone. And so I think out of that I thought about a walk, a tour, putting things in front of, uncovering things hidden in plain sight.

I had heard about Octavius Catto and the idea of voting rights and vigilante violence –  like he was executed in broad daylight on the street…Learning about institutions like the creation of these black churches…there’s been a bunch of churches burnt. There’d been an era leading up to the civil war when there was a lot of conflict between the Irish and black Americans, class conflicts trickling down. And there was also white supremacy, and so a lot of black institutions got burned down. And so I learned about this orphanage that got burnt down, churches that got burnt down, and I was like ‘oh I never heard about that.’

And so I tried to build connections, how could these things be a journey through disparate moments in time…one of my jobs should be to just foreground that existing archive and how to use that.  So I try to keep it tight and conceptually unified…So there’s primary source, which could be a book, a song, an artist I’m going to work with, and then maybe an object or a material…I tried to keep it to three things.

A lot of things were taught to me in the process about the story, collaborating with people means that the story gets told by those involved and not always by me because I don’t always know the story.

What made you name it Sweet Chariot, is it after the song?


I was really looking for stories of people who committed to things knowing that it might not bear fruit in their lifetime. I think that’s what helped me pick stories, it was who here made the city look the way it does today and knew in their lifetime that they wouldn’t see it. They wouldn’t really see freedom themselves.  And I think that Sweet Chariot that’s a kind of song about afterlife, a black spiritual legacy that has an idea of world-making, world-making in an activist world-making mentality like the things we do today can make a future worth living in…

I wanted to make a tool, what could an iPhone app be, could it be a tool for carrying us from one place to another, kind of science fiction, I mean a sweet chariot could be a space ship, a time machine.

So there was a person in there who would tell people how to download the app and give them a map and tell them where to go, where it starts. I think people struggled…my mum did the app, did the journey, and she called me, she was stuck on the last one…I think people like the videos, you can watch the videos on the site, and people can get the project when they watch the videos…but I think walking around the city, it’s exhausting, a pretty long walk.

It’s quite a bit of ground, looking for things, being on semi-covered private property to try to find something, I think it’s an uncomfortable experience and that’s something that was interesting to me, when I was doing the work I was often having to hang out for long periods of time and use spots in a park…and what it means to be black while being in nature or private property, semi-private property…

I just think that when I’m doing my research, what I am stumbling on and then how I feel when I find it is, I feel troubled, I feel like haunted, I feel unsettled, and I want people to feel those feelings. I’m definitely interested in affect, like how does history feel, how can we be made to feel something, and so I’m always looking to get at what in the story is impossible to resolve…

…we can start to understand how history is a reflection of individual choices people have…I just was wondering how can we understand the type of people people were, and so I don’t want anyone to just sit static. I think a monument where’s a statue and it’s still unmoving is not serving us as humans and helping us understand that, history is made by a series of choices and gestures by individual living people and that what we’ve inherited is not people’s static contributions, their static identities, but we’re inheriting the choices they’ve made and the challenge to make ourselves choices day by day. It’s that creative or equitable just future, so I think I’m trying to figure out how to make stories complicated and full of feeling because I think people make choices based on feelings. I guess it’s also a real, a feminist position as well.  Feeling and affect and emotion are the engine that’s like the life-blood of our world, everyone has feelings and feelings are legitimate and relationships and ties to one another are what make history, rather than acts and logic and rationality, that’s my position.

…And growing up in Philadelphia I totally inherited a sense of founding fathers, had those feelings, chose where they worked, no one else lived there, just like these anterooms with white men in it and I was like that can’t be true…I was trying to tell about the history of black struggle in Philadelphia was that it’s, it happened collaboratively across time and much of it has been hidden, the landscape doesn’t reflect that history, the buildings aren’t there and you have to really look for them.  Research is worth doing because when you research these things you find it, it opens up portals into stories and hidden spaces…

There is recovery, you can recover these narratives from the archives you can find a key, and that we’re all capable of constructing it again or in our own ways, so we can make a difference by practising everyday resistance and everyday gestures of love and commitment and music and poetry and dance. And also that some stories can only be understood through these art forms because they, the tragedy of them maybe defies explanation.  I found that poetry was very powerful in telling these stories in ways that just telling the story wasn’t going to, couldn’t move people as much as hearing a poem about it.

Saidiya Hartman, she’s important to me as a methodology…I think the work is also about the personal being political, like you could start from a place of self-knowledge and out of that practice build an archive…if a lot of people have knowledge about themselves it becomes shared knowledge.

It’s world building…You can build a free world with people, where people can vote, you can build a world with reproductive rights, a lot of people are contributing to world building in different ways and we tend to limit, some people think they can’t, they’re not contributing at all, some people are fully aware of how they’re building worlds but yes, that’s not running for office but are interested in building a world where the past and the present are in much closer communication.


Marisa was interviewed for Archiving the Inner City by Irteza Anwar Mohyuddin.