By Aileen Farshi
The work of visual and sculptural artist Zipporah Camille Thompson transports you from the confines of a gallery into an alternate dimension in outer space. Histories are encapsulated in clay objects and woven textiles that lay before you. Unearthly sculptures-as-artifacts with ornate details share a tale of personal journey and identity. The cosmic contemporary installations Zipporah constructs evoke questions of parallel universes and the spiritual beings that seek to guide our path.
In our conversation together, Zipporah shares the evolutionary journey of her work and why she continues to be drawn to the connectivity of humans.
Aileen Farshi: Can you begin by sharing the exploration of your first works and how the conceptual process has evolved?
Zipporah Camille Thompson: I was investigating themes such as death, rituals, and self-identity. Early in life, I had a season of loss with members of my family and those feelings of affliction resonated with me. My work was concentrated on death and rebirth. The idea of eternal return was a kind of beauty that comes from a lived experience through adversity.
Throughout my childhood, my family would vacation to the beach and mountains. On those trips, I scoured the beaches and hiked the woods in search of the perfect seashell or stone. To me, those objects encapsulated a fond experience into memory. A talisman to carry with me.
In my early work, I created installations to replicate a collection of items that carried an emotional attachment. Things that most people would have in their homes. Personal mementos of happy memories just like my shells and rocks. Those objects that as an adult you can’t rationalize keeping, but can never part with.
Currently, my ideas are concerning outer space and navigation. I’m searching for ways to explore cosmic landscapes, specifically the relationships of the cosmos and psychic landscapes. I’m translating connections humans experience in life every day. I’m seeking those connections across vast spaces as a way to connect people across gaping interpersonal differences. My desire is for my work to be viewed from a universal lens and be relatable to those who encounter it.
In both Queen of the Field (2017) and Black Cloud Prism (2018) you explore history and its remnants through organic objects in nature. With techniques using natural dying process and weaving, we see a connection to both of your grandmothers who both used those skills in their time for functional purposes. It appears that you’re creating artifacts with sculpture and textiles to share a history that otherwise may not be told.
Storytelling is a major component of my work. I was speaking to someone recently about memory. How it fades from the original memory and metamorphoses into an altered memory over time. I’m drawn to the idea of preserving that original memory. I’m reconciling the true history of experience through object making.
Textiles and sculpture are both mediums that date back to the earliest of times. I imagine the history of those two mediums drew you to working with them.
I originally started out as a painter and luckily for me that didn’t work out. I took textile courses later in my studies and fell in love. To me, it was like learning a new language. A new way to communicate conceptual ideas. Although that ability to communicate certainly applies to painting, I felt more attuned to conversing with textiles and sculpture.
Initially, I felt confined by working from a grid when first learning to weave. The process was too structured and rigid. My natural preference is to be as open as possible to allow the flow of ideas and the work to guide me. However, I quickly stepped back and realized that a grid is organic in nature. You find grids and patterns at the very base of an element’s makeup. It was then that I decided to look at systems within nature as inspiration for my work. From a simple grid, I can evolve the patterns to create a sense of chaos or playfulness.
I considered the tradition that accompanies the craft of textiles and I asked myself, “how can I make this more contemporary?” I looked back at my personal experiences and contemplated the ways I could communicate my history through objects.
It’s become a form of ritual. To be present at the loom requires the attention of your entire body. Your mind and body have a psychosomatic relationship. That energy even extends to include the loom and materials. The feeling of harmony becomes spiritual and it’s almost a hybrid way of working. When I sit down at the loom or even when using clay, I intentionally plan as little as possible. I might have an idea of scale, but I like to be present and respond to the materials. I work from intuition and act at the moment. That’s where I have found my passion for weaving and ceramics.
Your work reflects on the relationship and connectivity of people. What keeps you interested in coming back to explore elements of those themes?
It stems from the idea of eternal return. Everything in some way or another is connected. When we look at the social and political climate in America we see so much division. There’s angst, anger, and incessant fighting. We have so many similarities that bind us together as humans. I wish people would examine more closely the qualities that unify us. I know that’s a very utopian idea, but why not try to achieve that? Until I see more progress I imagine that I will continue incorporating themes of connectivity into my work.
In a group exhibition at Atlanta Contemporary, your work Night Powers (2018) suggests that the night sky guides seekers with tarnished pasts into freedom. As you reflect on the past and present, does your work also consider the future?
That’s a great question and I honestly don’t have an answer for that one. I think that the work is attempting to create a sense that there is more to life than our current existence or situation. Moving forward we can come together to be unified. I think it’s okay that I don’t always have the answers. That’s what the work is attempting to address. We might not know the answers until we’ve arrived upon them.
I think that what my work [Night Powers] is a message of hope. I draw from personal experience, but I believe my work relates to all of us. I think we would all like a second chance for redemption and to have more hope in our lives. Using universal elements such as the moon and stars in the night sky to explore these questions may not provide answers, but it can help bring peace to an unknown future.
You explore identity and otherness in Dark Side of the Moon (2016). How did the conceptual process help you navigate those ideas and was it a personal exploration for you?
That show is still one of my favorites for so many reasons. At the time I was questioning a lot about myself. I was investigating confusion within myself and particularly my place in the world. I had questions pertaining to how I view myself and how I’m perceived by others. When studying the moon phases, you recognize that the moon goes through a period of darkness. I was engrossed with ideas about the phases of the moon at its darkest. I wondered if that is a time of all loss or birth? Is that a time of regeneration or reflection? Is that a time of going inward? I discovered it’s all of those things.
Metaphorical ways of looking at the dark phases of the moon was how I conceptualized blackness and understanding myself. The author William Du Bois (b. 1918) describes the African American spirit as having a double consciousness. As an African American, you’re always wrestling with stereotypes or prejudices. I wrestled with how I am perceived by strangers when it may contradict with my internal feelings of myself. At times I don’t know how to walk around in the world. It’s as if I’m two people in one body or some days five people inside of one body.
At the time of making Dark Side of the Moon, I was trying to make sense of those conflicting internal feelings. Did I make sense of it all? No. I feel like it’s something I’m still working to figure out and come to terms with. I believe I can still move forward in my life and be content knowing that it’s okay to be a little confused.
Aileen Farshi is a writer based in Atlanta, GA.