Artist examines ‘The Architecture of Slavery' in new project



>> 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. NEWSOUR WEEKEND SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT DUARTE GERALDINO HAS THE STORY. >> ALEXANDRE… >> Reporter: 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. >> IT'S OUTLINING THE JOURNEY OF ALEXANDRE. HE CAME WITH HIS MOTHER, AND HE WAS NURSING. >> Reporter: 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. >> THEY'RE CALLLING ALEXANDRE, HIS RACE, IS MULATTO ROUGE. IF THE FATHER IS BLACK AND THE MOTHER IS BLACK, HOW IS THIS CHILD MULATTO ROUGE? >> Reporter: OH, I SEE WHAT YOU'RE SAYING. >> IT'S A LIE. >> Reporter: THIS WAS THE CHILD OF A POTENTIAL SLAVE OWNER AND A SLAVE. >> MM-HMM. >> Reporter: AND WE HAVE A CHILD THAT'S ZERO YEARS OLD, WHO IS MULATTO, AS YOU SAY, A FATHER WHO'S BLACK AND A MOTHER WHO'S BLACK. >> MM-HMM. >> Reporter: THERE'S A SECRET SOMEWHERE THERE. >> THERE IS A SECRET THERE. >> Reporter: 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. >> AND THE WORDS ARE SIMPLY "HERE I LIVED, HERE I DIED." AND THESE ARE WORDS THAT WERE SPOKEN BY SIBBY KELLY, WHO WAS A BLACK SLAVE MIDWIFE. >> Reporter: WE SPOKE WITH KERIS SALMON AT THE INTERNATIONAL PRINCE 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." >> 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 SEEMED TO BE RUNNING BACK TO THEIR FORMER PLACES OF ENSLAVEMENT. >> Reporter: RUNNING BACK TO WHERE THEY WERE ENSLAVED? >> 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. >> Reporter: 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. IT'S NOT THE CHAINS, IT'S NOT THE WHIPS, IT'S NOT THESE… THESE SORT OF ICONS OF SLAVERY THAT SO MANY OF US ARE USED TO. YOU FOCUS ON THINGS THAT ARE FAIRLY PEDESTRIAN. WHY? >> 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, A BIRD ABOUT TO TAKE OFF IN FLIGHT IN THE PRESENCE OF PEOPLE WHO WERE IMPRISONED THERE. >> Reporter: KERIS 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. >> ONE OF THE THINGS THAT WE… KERIS AND I TALKED ABOUT WHEN WE FIRST STARTED WORKING ON THE TEXT OF THESE PROJECTS, IS TO TRY TO REALLY FOCUS ON THE TYPE, THE… THE PHRASING, WITHOUT… WITHOUT IT LITERALLY HITTING YOU OVER THE HEAD WITH WHAT IT'S ABOUT. SO, IT'S KIND OF THIS… I THINK WE GO BACK AND FORTH ON… >> ALMOST LIKE A HIDDEN MESSAGE OR SOMETHING. >> YEAH, YEAH. >> YEAH. THE WORDS ARE NOT LITERAL TO THE IMAGE. >> YEAH, YEAH. >> I DO… SORT OF, IT ALLOWS THE VIEWER TO KIND OF USE ONE'S IMAGINATION. >> Reporter: FOR KERIS SALMON, THAT SHIFT IN PERSPECTIVE IS SUBTLE BUT POWERFUL. SHE SPENT 25 YEARS AS A TELEVISION JOURNALIST FOR NBC, ABC AND PBS, WHERE SHE ENABLED MILLIONS OF PEOPLE TO SEE NEWS EVENTS. BUT NOW, AS A PRINT ARTIST, SHE'S 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. >> DOING VERY WELL. >> THANK YOU. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU. >> Reporter: SHE BEGAN HER SERIES FIVE YEARS AGO WHEN SHE VISITED A PLANTATION WITH HER THEN BOYFRIEND, NOW HUSBAND, FRANK WILLIAMS. >> WE WENT TOGETHER. IT… 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 A HISTORY OF THAT PLANTATION. WE WENT OUT TO VISIT THE CURRENT OWNER OF THE PLANTATION HE ACQUIRED FROM MY FAMILY IN THE 1980s. >> Reporter: SO, HOLD ON ONE SECOND. THIS IS NOT JUST ANY PLANTATION. YOU SAID, "YOUR FAMILY." YOUR FAMILY OWNED A PLANTATION? >> YES. >> Reporter: FOR HOW MANY YEARS? >> THEY HAD OWNED IT SINCE 1790. >> Reporter: YOU'RE WALKING AT A PLANTATION WHERE YOUR FAMILY OWNED NOT ONLY THE PLANTATION, BUT HUNDREDS OF SLAVES, WITH YOUR BLACK WIFE. >> CORRECT. >> Reporter: YOU, THERE MANY YEARS LATER, WITH YOUR WHITE HUSBAND, WHOSE FAMILY… >> MM-HMM. >> Reporter: …OWNED THE PLANTATION. >> MM-HMM. >> Reporter: THAT'S A LOT. >> IT WAS LIFE-ALTERING FOR ME. I FELT LIKE, IF THIS HAD BEEN 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. 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 COULD LIVE WITH. >> Reporter: HER WAY OF UNDERSTANDING AMERICA'S HISTORY AND PRESENT WAS TO PAIR A PHOTOGRAPH OF WESSYNGTON PLANTATION'S 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." >> WHAT I WANT TO POINT OUT HERE IS THAT THE INSTITUTION OF SLAVERY IS THE FOUNDATION, THE ARCHITECTURAL FOUNDATION, FOR OUR CURRENT AMERICAN SITUATION. >> Reporter: HOW SO? >> 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, IT WAS PROBABLY THOUGHT OF AS BARBARIC THEN, BUT WHO CARED? WE'RE STILL DOING IT NOW. >> Reporter: WHAT DO YOU THINK IS STILL HERE TODAY, BASED ON YOUR ART? WHAT KIND OF SYSTEMS? YOU KNOW, THE ECONOMIC, SOCIAL SYSTEMS. >> 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.

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