Public Media Arts Hub

Artist examines 'The Architecture of Slavery' in new project


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Megan Thompson: Income inequality and criminal justice reform are often in the news these days, and a new exhibit in New York City argues that those issues are linked to our history by what the artist calls the "Architecture of Slavery."

NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent, Duarte Geraldino has the story.

Duarte Geraldino: Artist Keris Salmon is intrigued by the story of an infant named Alexandre. He was the son, it would appear, of enslaved parents. likely born on the plantation where Salmon took this photo.

She imagines he lived in this former slave cabin, which is still standing today.

She took the photo on a recent visit to the Destrehan plantation, just outside of New Orleans.

Keris Salmon: It's outlining the journey of Alexandre. He came with his mother and he was nursing.

Duarte Geraldino: By pairing a photo of the cabin with the text from a database of slave records from the 1700s, Keris Salmon recreates this historical moment. One detail stands out to her.

Keris Salmon: They're calling Alexandre -- his race is "mulatto rouge". If the father is black and the mother is black --how is this child mulatto rouge?

Duarte Geraldino: Oh I see what you're saying --.

Keris Salmon: It's a lie.

Duarte Geraldino: This was the child of a potential slave owner and his slave.

Duarte Geraldino: We have a child that's 0 years old who is mulatto as you say, a father who is black and a mother who's black. There's a secret somewhere there--.

Keris Salmon: There is a secret there.

Duarte Geraldino: At the heart of that secret are the differences between what is known and what is shown about life during America's Age of Slavery.

Keris Salmon: The words are simply: " here I lives. Here I dies" and these are words that were spoken by Sibby Kelly who was a black slave midwife.

Duarte Geraldino: We spoke with Keris Salmon at the International Print Center in New York City, where her work is on display through mid-June.

In a collection of 18 prints, Salmon juxtaposes words from historical records, letters, bills of sale and other archival texts with photos she took at more than a dozen plantations over the past three years across seven southern states. She calls the series "We Have Made These Lands What They Are: The Architecture Of Slavery."

Keris Salmon: The title comes from an encounter just after emancipation between a group of blacks and a group of whites in North Carolina and the blacks seem to be running back to their former places of enslavement--

Duarte Geraldino: Running back to where they were enslaved?

Keris Salmon: Exactly. And the white people incredulously asked. "What the heck are you doing? Why why are you running back to the place where you were imprisoned?" And they answered almost in unison. "We have made these lands what they are." And that is true.

Duarte Geraldino: Salmon's art and photography compels us to zoom-in to the "everydayness of slave life." It makes us wonder what's gone and --critically-- what's still around us.

Duarte Geraldino: It's not the chains. It's not the whips. It's not these sort of icons of slavery that so many of us are used to. You focus on things that are fairly pedestrian. Why?

Keris Salmon: Well, life then was fairly pedestrian. I mean yes there were whips, chains, manacles, leg irons, neck irons. But this is the kind of thing that people encountered every day, black and white. You know the sweep of a banister, the geometry of a fence, the-- uh, a bird about to take off in flight in the presence of people who were imprisoned there.

Duarte Geraldino: Salmon works with Brooklyn-based printmakers Peter Kruty and Sayre Gaydos. Together, they set the look of the series. They designed the typeface so that it resembled the one used on 19th century posters that announced slave runaways and auctions.

Sayre Gaydos: One of the things that Keris and I talked about when we first started working on the text of these projects is to try to focus on the type, the phrasing without hitting you over the head with what it's about. So it's kind of -

Peter Kruty: almost like a hidden message or something.

Keris Salmon: The words are not literal to the image - it allows the viewer to use one's own imagination.

Duarte Geraldino: For Keris Salmon, That shift in perspective is subtle but powerful . She spent 25 years as television journalist for NBC, ABC, and PBS, where she enabled millions of people to see news events, but now -- as a print artist -- she is asking you to look through the eyes of a slave...with all the pain, complexity and stolen moments of joy that come with that particular American view.

Frank Williams: You're doing very well.

Keris Salmon: Thank you.

Duarte Geraldino: She began her series five years ago when she visited a plantation ... with her then-boyfriend, now-husband Frank Williams.

Frank Williams: We went together. It came about because a man named John Baker who had was descended from one of the slaves at Wessyngton plantation had spent about 15 years writing the history of that plantation. We went out to visit the current owner of the plantation who acquired it from my family in the 1980s.

Duarte Geraldino: So hold on one second: This is not just any plantation. You said your family, your family owned the plantation?

Frank Williams: Yes.

Duarte Geraldino: For how many years?

Frank Williams: They had owned it since 1790.

Duarte Geraldino: You walking at a plantation where your family owned-- not only the plantation but hundreds of slaves-- with your black wife.

Frank Williams: Correct.

Duarte Geraldino: You, there, many years later with your white husband.

Keris Salmon: Mhhm.

Duarte Geraldino: -- whose family owned the plantation. That's a lot.

Keris Salmon: It was life altering for me. I felt like if this had been more 150- 200 years ago the circumstances would have been quite different. And I think that's true. We would have been playing very different roles.

Keris Salmon: When I arrived there I was a journalist. And when I left on that very same day I became an artist. I couldn't leave without making something out of it. Or or or -- trying to understand it in a way that that I can live with.

Duarte Geraldino: Her way of understanding America's history and present was to pair a photograph of Wessyngton plantation large stately house with an excerpt from Baker's book:
"With the other slaves, Sarah went to the banks of Caleb's Creek to collect clay. They carried the clay up the hill where the mansion now stands. They built that Big House brick by brick."

Keris Salmon: What I want to point out here is that the institution of slavery is the foundation -- the architectural foundation for our current American situation.

Duarte Geraldino: How so?

Keris Salmon: It just set the set the ground for it. I mean separating children from their-- from their parents in the 18th century. I don't know what it was probably thought of as barbaric then, but who cared. We're still doing it now.

Duarte Geraldino: What do you think is still here today based on your art? What kind of systems? Economic, social systems?

Keris Salmon: Unequal Education. Redlining in housing. Mass incarceration. I could go on and on. I mean the things that we talk about on a daily basis today have their roots in the American slave economy.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.