On the eve of the release of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” I attended the opening of Zipporah Camille Thompson’s “the ocean wept rainbows” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Georgia (MOCA GA).  While it was hard to pick where to go that evening, as I am a lover of all art forms, it is safe to say that the themes of grief, freedom, community and media’s role in expression were on my mind. When you lose a figure central to your life and your craft, whether that be the iconic Chadwick Boseman or Thompson’s beloved grandmother, there is sometimes no better way to respond than to create. 

As part of their Working Artist Project, the MOCA GA provides creative and financial support to up-and-coming visual artists working in the metro Atlanta area. For the 2021-22 cohort, Thompson was selected as one of the MOCA GA working artists. 

Zipporah Camille Thompson’s “Carolina Gold.” (Zimra Chickering / The Emory Wheel)

A native Carolinian and Atlanta-based artist, Thompson examines otherness and embodiedness through her mixed-media artworks, with her “the oceans wept rainbows” exhibit dedicated to her grandmother, Allean Mungo Robinson, who passed away July 15, 2022. Thompson seems interested in the use of nature as a metaphor for her grandmother’s beloved personality traits, describing Robinson’s love as “deep + boundless like the ocean,” and her grace and beauty “endless like the sky” on her website.

While some of these metaphors may evoke images of air and water, Thompson’s choice of material leaves much more up for question. Listing the objects used to make her artworks would probably take up the entire space of this article alone, but some of the most frequent and idiosyncratic materials include excavated tires, Carolina gold rice, safety buckles, hair weave, beads and nets. Examining these artworks and spending time with the chosen materials felt like helping a friend with a closet clean-out, finding mysterious items hinting at past identities and expressions in their lifetime. Just as you begin to piece together a story, your eye catches another object that paints a different picture. You find a hair clip you wore in middle school or the rice your grandmother used to cook for you, making even the most unfamiliar stranger feel somehow nostalgic. 

This patchwork of materials is a beautiful mode of capturing the illegibility of memory and personhood; it is truly impossible for us to comprehend the whole of a person — a person’s memory and a person’s life — just as it would be impossible to comprehend every corner of Thompson’s large sculptural artworks. 

The working artists are selected by a curator from a major museum each year, and the 2021-22 artists were selected by Jordan Carter, curator at the Dia Art Foundation in New York. Carter was previously the associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago, and his master’s in art history from London’s Courtauld Institute of Art focused on Fluxus and global conceptual art. 

Carter’s background is evident in the choice of Thompson’s work for this exhibition, as she focuses on exploring transformation through clay and textile in a manner that allows for the more conceptual, rather than literal, interpretation of her creations. Carter’s curation of Thompson’s work thus celebrated the openness to interpretation and eye-catching materiality of her sculptures. 

Detail of plastic hair clips and knotted wool on Zipporah Camille Thompson’s “Low Country.” (Zimra Chickering / The Emory Wheel)

Artworks were hung so that they were visible from all sides, with new materials, details and possible symbols becoming unveiled as you spent time with each piece. I felt as though Thompson’s artworks were in conversation with the space, fitting into the corner, ceilings, I-beams and walls of the semi-industrial, white-walled MOCA GA galleries.

I left feeling tired, and I attribute part of that feeling to the layering effect of such artworks — the intense personal emotion seemingly interwoven into and yet somehow inaccessible from each artwork. The artworks began to blend into one another, and it felt as though I was attempting to read one larger creation yet was not fully equipped to do so. Creation from after a loss is a universal human concept, and, while words sometimes suffice, it is often therapeutic to reflect upon and express your loss through other non-verbal mediums. It complicates the viewing experience, challenging the artist to translate a person’s memory and experience to a broader audience, who may or may not have known the person they lost at all.

In some ways, Thompson’s work reminded me of the quintessential work of Sam Gilliam, the postwar American artist who transformed the relationship between canvas and gallery space. Gilliam sought to redefine the role of art in social change by redefining the bounds of the canvas itself, with Thompson’s artworks reflecting this same extension into the gallery space. Each artist approaches this task of eliciting social change through their artwork in quite different ways though, as Thompson focuses far more on evoking personal memories and figures.

A poem by Thompson plasters the first wall of her exhibition area, with the last line describing her grandmother as “radically transforming trauma into triumph.” This sense of transformation is undeniable in Thompson’s artworks, with commonplace objects becoming part of a greater whole, so far out of their typical context that you almost forget the normal purpose of wool or a hair clip. Despite all of this complexity in material, the artworks themselves sometimes felt difficult to read and inaccessible emotionally, even though it was evident from the poem and Thompson’s website that these artworks come from a deeply personal and intimate expression. The illegibility of memory is captured by Thompson’s work, rendering it, at times, not the most enjoyable viewing experience, but still a poignant one. 

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Zimra Chickering (24C) is a born and raised Chicagoan who studies art history and nutrition science. She is also a student docent for the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Woodruff JEDI Fellow, educational committee chair for Slow Food Emory, and Xocolatl: Small Batch Chocolate employee. Zimra loves cooking, visiting art museums, photography, doing Muay Thai, drinking coffee, and grocery shopping. She uses writing as an outlet to reflect upon issues and oppurtunities within artistic institutions, and the unique ways in which food and art can act as communicators of culture.