I Was Here is a public art project that features images of contemporary African-American men, women, and children, turned into “Ancestor Spirit Portraits” in a collaboration between artist Marjorie Guyon and photographer Patrick J. Mitchell with language from a poem by Nikky Finney interwoven into some of the pieces. These portraits, acting as a living memorial to the enslaved persons bought and sold, are installed on roman blinds in windows of businesses across the country. Isn’t there a sort of poetic irony in using blinds to open our eyes and minds?
Through collaged coordinates and poetry, the portraits reference significant touchpoints in the history of slavery and civil rights in the Americas. Collage, as an approach to image-making, also allows multiple points of entry for the viewer. It is a physical manifestation of how the stories of many can coalesce. The collaged portraits form cohesive, ethereal images that convey the dignity of the African-American subject and family – two great casualties of slavery and things much at a loss in this country’s visual history. Furthermore, for a community that, through oppression, is lacking substantial access to genealogical resources, these portraits can act as a set of archetypal ancestors for those who have lost a way to trace their own.”
The first installation of the project manifests as a means to sanctify spaces where enslaved Africans were bought and sold. It is composed of 21 Ancestor Spirit Portraits and launched on the public square of Cheapside, the heart of Lexington, Kentucky - which was one of the largest slave auction sites in the United States. But it crosses the world referencing the Bight of Benin, the Igbo Landing on St. Simon’s Island Georgia, the Broeck Race Course in Savannah, where the largest two-day sale of enslaved persons occurred, as well as other physical locations central to the long lucrative life of the transatlantic Middle Passage slave trade. We believe that the spirit of the past can be redeemed and our future, as a shared humanity, more richly nurtured.
The mission of the project is twofold—to create a memorial to those who were sold into slavery and in doing so, to seek a path beyond who we were and move toward a vision of who we could be…. to instill a deeper understanding of our common humanity and to create a means to “see the world with different eyes”.
Although this project launches in Kentucky, the repercussions from slavery are not merely a 'southern issue'. It is a national wound that we, as fellow Americans, must heal. Central to the project is a blessing that augments the visual imagery. There is a prayer spoken at the epicenter of each site to sanctify the space.
Once installed, the art lays bare the interconnectedness of urban and rural geographies vis-a-vis slavery as an economic development tool. Thus, the original idea has been adapted to address the wounds of slavery writ large, and in the second iteration, in the rural context. The artist’s vision is to connect our community using visual pieces to cross invisible barriers that have kept us segregated by race, class and culture. Essentially, desegregation through art.
A second iteration of the project has been installed in the rural community of Winchester Ky. which adapted the urban art exhibit to help it heal century’s old wounds from slavery, racism and segregation.
The medium itself is part of the place making work. Printing the Ancestor Spirit Portraits on large scale translucent tapestries and presenting the images as roman shades that can be raised and lowered allows business owners an installation they can control. And because the tapestries are translucent, letting light through allows the images to be viewed from the street and in the interior space.
We are hoping that as these images move through the Country , they will work to open a path into the heart of America and allow us to see each other as holy.
The heat of a forest fire creates a condition. There are certain seeds which can only be triggered by extreme heat to break open and grow. In today’s conditions, at this time in our world, and in our country, a seed has broken open.