Most of the time that Tomashi Jackson is creating art, she says that she doesn’t know what the final product will look like. Instead of aesthetics, she is more focused on the extensive methodical research that goes into the work — as in the case of “I See Fields of Green (Put the Ball Through the Hoop)” (2022), a multimedia painting intersecting historic scenes from a 1963 speech given by President Lyndon B. Johnson at the University of Michigan, a 1965 meeting between the president and Black organizers over voting rights legislation, and a 1969 performance by Nina Simone at Morehouse College. Layered with symbolic earthen materials gathered from Colorado, the colorful work contends with a paradoxical tension of violent realities and an unyielding hope for a better future.

It’s one of many works by Jackson that visitors can see next month in the multimedia artist’s first mid-career survey, Across the Universe, opening at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the University of Pennsylvania on February 10. Originally displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA Denver), the exhibition features more than 30 pieces spanning photography, textiles, video, painting, screenprinting, and sculpture from the past decade to provide a comprehensive look at her research-based practice and signature use of kaleidoscopic color and layering to address issues of systemic oppression.

Miranda Lash, a curator at MCA Denver, told Hyperallergic that the exhibition was organized loosely chronologically across several rooms in a way that also highlights “how certain themes have resurfaced over time, including histories related to desegregation, the blossoming and restriction of civil rights for people of color, and access to education, voting and housing in the United States.”

Stretching back to 2015, Across the Universe features multimedia works such as “Press and Curl (Black and Brown People’s Mortgage Free Homes)” (2019), a sculpture of vinyl strips draped over a blue awning that grapples with housing inequality, and “States’ Rights (Brown et al. vs The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas) (Limited Value Exercise))” (2017), composed of textiles and found memorabilia referencing the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decisions of 1954 and 1955. In conversation with time-based videos that Jackson refers to as “moving paintings,” structures consisting of layered historic photographs, distorted and partially obscured by a dizzying array of angled halftone lines (a printmaking practice that converts photographic sections into lines or dots), reveal new shapes and hues — a trademark practice of Jackson’s.

“Here at the Western World (Professor Windham’s Early 1970’s Classroom & the 1972 Second Baptist Church Choir)” (2023) is one of four pieces recently created after the artist’s time in Colorado in 2022. Inspired by the 2022 documentary This Is Not Who We Are which examines the disconnect between Boulder’s seemingly progressive reputation and the lived experiences of its Black residents, the work fuses two ’70s archival photographs of Black history in Boulder with vinyl, acrylic paint, paper bags, and textiles. The piece is also layered with a paste the artist created out of sand from the state’s Great Sand Dunes and Yule Marble dust — a high-quality material used to construct the Lincoln Memorial and other monuments.

“Scenes that I saw in [‘This Is Not Who We Are’] inspired me to focus my energy on these moments of spaces that were intentionally created by and for Black people and other people of color that, in doing so, create the possibility and the opportunity for freedom for everyone,” Jackson told Hyperallergic.

This spirit of resilient faith and joy also appears in a single-channel display dedicated to Jackson’s R&B alter-ego Tommy Tonight. The humorous, “loving, lip-syncing” persona emerged during the artist’s time at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2019 and now functions as an “avatar of [Jackson’s] grief,” the artist explained. The frontperson for a fictional band called The Talents (a nod to Octavia Butler’s Parable series), Tommy Tonight results from Jackson’s experience of being surrounded by music in childhood.

“Music just shows up all throughout my work — in the titles of my shows, the titles of the paintings,” Jackson said, laughing. “And sometimes, I feel moved to adopt a different character and lip sync to love songs in the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado, which is what happened with that bit.”

Jackson’s exhibition will be on view at the ICA through June 2.

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