I Was Here is a public art project that features images of contemporary African American men, women, and children recreated as Ancestor Spirit Portraits. A series of installations of these iconic Portraits become ‘on the street’ museums designed to educate, unify communities while creating guardians and memorials in public space to those who were enslaved. Through the use of latitude and longitude, the project references locations central to the long life of the transatlantic Middle Passage slave trade. Through partnerships with historians, iconic Ancestor Spirits are installed into historic locations across the country whose significance may not be known. These portraits, acting as a tribute to enslaved persons, are installed on roman blinds in windows of businesses at key sites. The mission of the project is twofold—to create a visual testament of those who were sold into slavery and to instill a deeper understanding of our common humanity and create a means to “see the world with different eyes.” Each installation is accompanied by an opening Sanctification ceremony that brings community voice, song and spoken word to the public’s experience. We believe that the spirit of the past can be redeemed and our future, as humanity, more richly nurtured.
Barry Darnell Burton, Project Manager
Marjorie Guyon, Artist
Patrick J. Mitchell, Photographer
I Was Here began in 2016 with a set of emblematic Ancestor Spirit Portraits created by photographing contemporary African Americans as archetypal Ancestor Spirits. The portraits embody Family: mother, father, brother, sister. They form cohesive, ethereal images that convey the dignity of the African American individual and family – imagery mostly missing in America’s visual history. The “here” of I Was Here begins with an honest look at the history of place. Ancestor Spirit Portraits have been integrated into key historic sites across America. Through these installations, these iconic Spirit Portraits create a visual for an invisible history, asking us to examine who we are to each other, who we are as a nation and how we can work to create a shared citizenship.
What I Was Here accomplishes with its public art and public history installations is a mindful, reverent, and powerful acknowledgment of American history; history that may be misunderstood, misinterpreted, ignored, or simply forgotten. The project invites and encourages visitors to allow this acknowledgment to hold public space and to accept the echoes layered into the project’s name, I Was Here.