A public art project in Lexington is challenging us to really see each other, at a time when political divisions in this country are so fierce as to be called “tribal.”
Thanks to this extraordinary blend of photography, poetry and paint, “spirit portraits” of people who were bought and sold at Cheapside looked on from nearby windows Tuesday as Lexington’s refurbished Historic Courthouse was re-dedicated.
Long before 1898 when construction began on the limestone edifice, the public square on which it sits was home to one of this country’s largest slave auctions.
From the heart of Lexington, human beings were sold, literally, “down the river,” children torn from parents. Imagine the inhumanity, the willful blindness to human suffering, that allowed that to happen. Imagine the wound that inhumanity leaves on the psyche of a community and a nation.
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“I Was Here” is a kind of salve for that wound, a belated opportunity to recognize the humanity and beauty of those who were cruelly stripped of their freedom and dignity.
The timing could not be better. No less than the president is goading us to fear and distrust. It’s more important than ever to see and honor the humanity in each other, especially in those we have been taught to scorn.
“I believe in the power of art to shift a heart,” says Lexington artist Marjorie Guyon, who enlisted poet Nikky Finney and photographer Patrick J. Mitchell in the project almost two years ago.
Thanks to all who helped them realize their vision, starting with the business owners who are lending their windows to showcase the “ancestor spirit portraits.” Thanks also to the long list of supporters, including Wells Fargo, VisitLEX and the Kentucky Arts Council.
On a Saturday morning in early fall, a crowd of people who might not usually cross paths in Lexington gathered at the Carnegie Center to hear Finney read the poem she wrote for the project. After hearing “Auction Block of Negro Weather,” which conveys the lasting devastation of slavery through hurricane imagery, the artists, models and audience members talked for several hours. Other such conversations have and will unfold, as viewers celebrate the beauty of the images, the eloquence of the words, but also ponder the greed, brutality and racism that reduce human beings to commodities.
If you’re visiting the new old courthouse, walk around the block and take in public art that seeks to open new windows of understanding and empathy.