Spring 2024 ICA exhibitions interrogate histories, imagine futures

‘Tomashi Jackson: Across the Universe,’ ‘Entryways: Nontsikelelo Mutiti,’ and ‘Dominique White and Alberta Whittle: Sargasso Sea’ make up the Spring 2024 lineup in the galleries of the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Vibrantly colored paintings on display in a gallery.
A gallery view of “Tomashi Jackson: Across the Universe,” on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art through June 2.

Activating the galleries of the Institute of Contemporary Art this spring are the experimental paintings of Tomashi Jackson—ones that practically pop out of the wall, in both perception and in fact—and a multidisciplinary conversation between Dominique White and Alberta Whittle that puts forward nautical and Caribbean gothic aesthetics to dialogue with racial injustice and the climate crisis. 

Together, they are emblematic of yet another season of experimentation at ICA. 

Tomashi Jackson: Across the Universe” is the first mid-career survey of the works of Jackson, featuring 30 pieces—mostly paintings, with some video and textile works—that elevate themes of social justice and challenge color theory as devised by 20th-century art educator Josef Albers. “Dominique White and Alberta Whittle: Sargasso Sea,” meanwhile, calls attention to transatlantic colonial legacies by drawing inspiration from the Sargasso Sea, the only body of water defined by ocean currents instead of land. The second-floor installation is collaborative and dialogic between White and Whittle, with large-scale sculptures, videos, and paintings. 

Ornamental braids portrayed through window vinyl.
“Entryways” by Nontsikelelo Mutiti.

These exhibitions are complemented by a new site-specific artwork by Nontsikelelo Mutiti covering ICA’s facade, inaugurating its new “Entryways” series of public art commissions. The 2,000-square-foot artwork, made of vinyl applied to the building’s exterior and interior windows, blends patterns of ironwork with African hair braiding designs. The visual language of ironwork in Philadelphia comingles with the braid renderings that speak to architectural features created by enslaved blacksmiths from West Africa; the concept, more broadly, connects the local with the global and reckons with history, while also inviting passersby into the galleries. 

“All of these exhibitions look to the past as a way to grapple with an ever-complex present, to then bring forward ideas about our shared possibilities for the future,” says Zoë Ryan, the Daniel W. Dietrich, II Director of ICA. 

Ryan notes a theme of boundary-pushing among all the exhibits. She describes Jackson’s work as “pushing the boundaries of painting” through mixed materials Jackson works with, the angles in which the pieces jut out from the wall (often appearing as or literally existing as awnings), and her work with color. White and Whittle push boundaries by cleverly “investigating the myth, the legend, the lore, the history of the Sargasso Sea,” says Ryan, and use this as a jumping-off point for contemporary dialogues. “Entryways” tells a story of both the history of ironwork in West Philadelphia and across the States, and the crafts people brought to America through slave routes. 

A painting exhibited with a vote sign peeking from behind several layers of material.
“A Pnyx for Crystal Mason in Fort Worth, TX”

Hallie Ringle, the Daniel and Brett Sundheim Chief Curator, adapted Tomashi Jackson’s traveling exhibition from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, Colorado, where it was originally curated by Miranda Lash, the Ellen Bruss Senior Curator. This exhibition showcases the breadth of Jackson’s work and focuses on histories and civil rights, adding context through wall text and sightlines. The exhibit also puts her work in conversation with Albers. 

“In Josef Albers’ book ‘Interaction of Color’ from 1963, he describes what happens when you put two colors next to each other. Tomashi was fascinated by this because she was studying Thurgood Marshall and, in that research, found the language Albers used to describe the perceptions of color paralleled the language used in legal documents to enforce segregation,” Ringle explains. “She’s taking something that’s been considered purely aesthetic and applying it to show how much of a construct race is and how it’s enforced by humans.”

Jackson’s work also, Ringle says, tackles aesthetician Clement Greenberg’s theory of painting, which is the notion that materials carry meaning while colors do not. Speaking to this, Jackson includes archival materials—images of Harriet Tubman, voting ballots, and more—among contrasting colors to challenge this idea while simultaneously calling attention to issues of social justice. 

“She’s definitely also thinking about resistance movements and how people, especially Black Americans, exercise their rights even when barred from doing so, and how they fought and continue to fight structural oppression,” says Ringle. She notes one particular piece, “A Pnyx for Crystal Mason in Fort Worth, TX, 2020,” that calls attention to a woman named Crystal Mason who was sentenced to five years in prison after casting a provisional ballot while on supervised release from prison; Mason says she did not know her status rendered her ineligible to vote.   

Red marooned house in an art gallery.
“when does a boat become a ship (Rest in Power Neville Denis Blackman aka The Great Carew),” courtesy of the artist, The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow and Nicola Vassell, New York.

“Dominique White and Alberta Whittle: Sargasso Sea” is the third exhibit curated for the ICA by Daniella Rose King, who was the Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow at the ICA from 2017-20.

“The running thread through her three exhibitions is they are all around Black feminist perspective, and so all the artists—though from different regions of the world—are Black artists and that continues with ‘Sargasso Sea,’” explains Denise Ryner, the Andrea B. Laporte Curator at the ICA. 

Both artists have histories with the Caribbean and produced work inspired by the Sargasso Sea, which overlaps with the shipping routes of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. They were partly inspired by the 1966 novel “Wide Sargasso Sea,” by Jean Rhys, set in Jamaica, Dominica, and England.

Harpoons and webbing hang from the ceiling of a gallery.
“can we be known without being hunted,” courtesy of the artist, Triangle-Asterídes and Veda.

Both artists’ nautical work includes seashells, while White’s also involves clay, rusted metals, and other materials that invoke the mythologies around water, its destructive possibilities, and the present environmental catastrophe. Whittle created a house that, Ryner says, suggests a marooning, a disaster, or a feeling of endangerment. That piece is accompanied by a video. 

On the opposite end of the gallery is a hanging sculpture by White with a distorted harpoon.

“It kind of holds the space, because it’s not only large-scale, but there’s a lot of feeling of stillness around it,” says Ryner. “The material is meant to look weathered and salvaged and, perhaps, pulled out of the water after a storm.”

Ryner recommends spending some time with the pieces and exploring the space. 

“What I love about sculptures like [White’s] is it really choreographs how the viewer walks around and tries to encourage them to really get all the views from each side,” she says. “It’s not immediately clear what you’re looking at, but when you look at points of the parts that are intended to look like a harpoon, you start to ask, ‘Why is it bent in this way?’ or ‘It’s not a useful harpoon—what has happened?’”

“Across the Universe” and “Sargasso Sea” are on display through June 2. “Entryways” is on view through December. 

Round painting with two figures and a sun casting on them in the sky.
“Blood Moon on Drexciya,” courtesy of the artist, The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow and Nicola Vassell, New York.