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An examination of Black identity and time

When William Nathaniel Jackson arrived in Philadelphia in the early 1900s, he became a new man. He was fleeing from somewhere near the Carolinas when he traveled north. There, he took a new name, made a new family, and built a new life.

He buried his old life. He became a pillar of the community—he was likely one before, which may have contributed to his need to escape. The full story, though, is a puzzle that his family can vaguely make out but possibly never see complete, an oral history pieced together with memories and stories.

It’s a familiar narrative for Black families who relocated during the first and second waves of the Great Migration. The mining of these memories led conceptual artist Nate Young to his new work, “Transcendence of Time,” showing virtually and in-person by appointment through Chicago’s Monique Meloche Gallery. Jackson was Young’s great-grandfather—the father of his paternal grandmother.

“If he was someone before he left and then he was someone else when he arrived, or set up a new life, that liminal state was kind of a vacuum of identity,” Young says. “And that was what was really driving my initial interest in him as a character.”

Today, a century after Jackson’s move, Young’s exploration of time feels eerily more relevant than ever—a blending of the past and present. The combination of a global pandemic that disproportionately affects Black communities and widespread protests against racism-driven police violence feels both unprecedented and reminiscent of past struggles.

“The thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the complicated nature of time, about the potential of collapsing the past and the present and the future into one thing as opposed to thinking about it linearly,” Young says.

In Philadelphia, Jackson was a fugitive. While looking through his journals and writings, Young found that out of fear Jackson put down the horse that he’d used to travel north and buried it. Jackson also attempted to take his own life. The horse’s bones and words from Jackson’s suicide letter are incorporated throughout the work.

“How do you hide something so large? A horse is a huge, really strong, and really large animal,” Young says. “To hide something like that is very difficult; it takes a lot of effort. So I was thinking about that in parallel with . . . the way that history is erased as well—or hidden, buried and then unearthed at different times. It’s sort of, once those hidden things start to come to light, in the context of a different time, they take off, and they may take on different kinds of meanings.”

In the online presentation, Young explains his family’s history and how he created the work, and guides audiences through the exhibition, which has multiple sets of sculptural works made of the excavated bones and handwritten words from Jackson’s suicide note. White oak and walnut reliquaries (or box altars) line the walls and walnut vitrines (or displays) that also have motion-activated audio of the bones rubbing together are placed randomly throughout the gallery. Young’s use of sound here is intentional.

“I wanted to use sound as a proof of a presence of an object that you can’t necessarily see, and that for me is parallel to thinking about history,” Young says. “I never saw my great-grandfather. I’ve seen a picture of him, but even that picture is constantly evading me. I’ve been trying to find it and I haven’t been able to find it for years. But there must be another way to prove his existence, and maybe a sound is a memory.”

Young’s exhibition lies in the in-between, in what you can and cannot see, and he hopes that visitors spend time in that place of doubt.

“When someone encounters the exhibition and then leaves, that doubt is important to me because it reveals the dichotomy between belief: belief and unbelief,” Young says. “Because what I don’t want is just to reveal my own familial history, but to think about the ways in which those ideas are transmitted—whether it’s through historical text, whether it’s through oral tradition, whether it’s visually, whether it’s sound—that vessel that I was describing is the vehicle through which belief can be produced.”   v

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