I Was Here is an artistic collaboration between poet Nikky Finney, artist Marjorie Guyon and photographer Patrick J. Mitchell. The project is composed of twenty-one Ancestor Spirit Portraits and centers on the public square, the physical heart of Lexington, Kentucky—Cheapside—which was one of the largest slave auction sites in the United States, but also references 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.

It is unknown how many hundreds of thousands of enslaved African people—men, women, and children were stripped from their families and sold as chattel. In 300 years of American history this horrific American truth has not been given the light and attention it deserves. This project seeks to begin the precious human work of looking at, looking behind, and looking ahead.

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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, VisitLex, Kentucky Arts Council, Paul Holbrook, The King Library Press at The University of Kentucky, John Hays and Patrick Estill @ JacksonKelly, John Morris, Barry Darnell Burton, Bob Estes, Linda F. Vogel Kaplan, The Wills Gallery and The Carnegie Center for Literacy.