I Was Here is an 'on the street museum' public art project initiated last fall in Lexington, Kentucky. The first installation is in Cheapside, the public square surrounding the Old Courthouse - once one of America's largest slave markets. 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. The project aims 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, slavery and the repercussions from it are not merely a 'southern issue'. It is a national wound that we, as fellow Americans, must find a way to heal.

The project 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 project is an artistic collaboration between poet Nikky Finney, artist Marjorie Guyon and photographer, Patrick J. Mitchell.

A second iteration of the project will launch in Winchester, Kentucky this coming spring comprised first of the I Was Here Ancestor Spirit Portraits and followed by an ‘on the street museum’ that utilizes iconic Clark County locations to create a true Identity of Place that bridges the divides of race, economic status and geography.

We envision the project traveling broadly into cities and towns where it can be used to help create a shared humanity.

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Public Installation

The primary innovation of this project is to utilize the Public Square as an exhibition space creating an outdoor museum open to all. In early October, large scale renditions of the Ancestor Spirit Portraits integrated with Nikky Finney’s poetic language are to be installed in select windows and doorways that surround the Old Courthouse. The original art pieces have been recreated as roman shades that can be lowered at night to bring the Ancestor Spirit Portraits into view in the Public Square.

A legend to guide the public through this installation will be available as the pieces are installed.

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Artists & Collaborators

The artists, and the nine models whose faces and bodies are artistic representations of millions of unnamed ancestors, believe at this time in all our lives, on this small corner of the earth, it is necessary to illuminate, as evocatively and powerfully as they know how, the living presence of the real human beings who once stood waiting to be bought and sold and who faced unspeakable human crimes against their humanity. They believe it is never too late to remember and honor a piece of the human puzzle that makes us who we are. I Was Here honors that memory.

This artistic collaboration would not have been possible without support from Wells Fargo, Great Clark Foundation, Clark County Community Foundation, VisitLex, Kentucky Arts Council, Paul Holbrook, The King Library Press at The University of Kentucky, John Hays and Patrick Estill @ JacksonKelly, Blue Grass Community Foundation, Knight Foundation Donor Advised Fund at the Blue Grass Community Foundation, John Morris, Barry Darnell Burton, (REIMAGINE CHEAPSIDE), Bob Estes, Linda F. Vogel Kaplan, Jeff Boggs, The Wills Gallery and The Carnegie Center for Literacy.