Katie Delmez, curator for the Frist Center, generously offered her time to be interviewed about these exhibitions for South x Southeast Photomagazine.
Nancy McCrary: Katie, thank you. You have focused the spotlight on three very important times in the lives of African-Americans in this country: the slavery of the 1800’s when African-Americans worked the plantations that became the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in 1901, along with the slavery of the present-day prison industrial complex at the same location bookend the mid-20th century Civil Rights struggles of African-Americans in the South. Tell us about the timing of the two exhibitions and why you felt it was important to have these two exhibitions overlap.
Katie Delmez: Both exhibitions are timely. Mass incarceration is a major social and political issue right now being addressed in everything from community Lunch-and-Learns, to the 2016 documentary 13th, to the opening this spring of a museum called “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration” in Montgomery, Alabama. Aside from 2018 being the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We Shall Overcome resonates with many issues we are facing today: a concern about attaining equal rights for severe different populations such as immigrant, transgendered, and people with disabilities, in addition to African-American; continued concerns about police brutality; the role of the media and images in shaping public opinion; and, to end on a positive note, the ability of the youth to lead the call for changes. Both shows, I hope, will raise awareness and compassion within our community.
Nancy McCrary: As someone who was born into, and spent most of her life in, the South during the years of the Civil Rights movement I never considered Nashville an important part of that movement. I did not realize Nashville was the first metropolis to integrate businesses peacefully or that their schools began desegregation as early as 1957. Please tell us why Nashville was so important, and how that era was recorded with the photographs in We Shall Overcome: Civil Rights and the Nashville Press, 1957-1968.
KD: That is exactly why I wanted to present this exhibition! Most people, even those who may have lived during the period, have heard about Little Rock and Greensboro and Birmingham, but don’t know that important events also took place here. The so-called “Nashville Plan” for desegregating public schools one grade per year was copied by many other Southern cities. The first of actual desegregation of the schools began five days after Governor Faubus stopped the students from entering Central High School in Little Rock. Knowing that, the families that chose to participate in Nashville became even braver, in my mind, since they knew that it could all go wrong.
So, Nashville in general was a role model for how integration could happen relatively smoothly. City officials made sure that the law (Brown v. Board of Education) would be enforced and assured parents that no child would be hurt during the process. It is important to note, however, that while police presence did in fact protect the students and their parents, a school was bombed in the middle of the night and, eventually, almost half of the students ended up transferring back to their all-black schools.
Also, while Greensboro gets the most credit for the student-led sit-in movement, a group of students had been training for months with then divinity student James Lawson. They began their sit-ins on February 13th, twelve days after Greensboro, and the lunch counters in Nashville were integrated before those in other cities. Many of these students from local historically black colleges went on to have major positions of influence in the national struggle for civil rights, including John Lewis and Diane Nash. The Nashville students also kept the freedom rides of 1961 going after the original riders were stopped.
The photographs in the exhibition depict a narrative that has moments of triumph and joy as well as pain and hate. And, while much change has come, some of the images remind us that that our country is still struggling to achieve true racial equity, here in Nashville and around the country.
NM: This image (above) provoked a range of emotions in me viewing it as I have now for the first time. The strength and pride of those mothers, aunts, and grandmothers leading their child into a completely unknown situation. The beauty of their clothing, their posture, their grace compared with the indignant stance of the awaiting teacher, the casual, entitled slouch of the white children watching him as he approaches “their” territory. Why do you believe these images were not publicized more before now?
KD: There have been exhibitions of these photographers at the Nashville Public Library and the Tennessee State Museum, but this is the first time they have been shown as artworks in a major visual arts institution and in the context of the power of images to shape public perception and history. We are thrilled that they will be on view for over six months and in a space that virtually all visitors will walk through. We estimate that well over 100,000 people will have an opportunity to see these formally compelling images taken by very skilled photographers and also be introduced to the full history behind the images.
We are grateful to both the Tennessean and the Nashville Public Library, which houses the archive of the now defunct Banner Newspaper, for giving us such open access to their historic records and allowing them to be featured in the exhibition and accompanying book.
NM: Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick’s 30+ years of recordings of life at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a prison farm built on 18,000 acres of former sugarcane and cotton plantations, is testimony to the inhumanity of the prison industrial complex of today. Tell us about curating the exhibition, Slavery, the Prison Industrial Complex, from such an extensive body of work.
KD: When our director, Susan Edwards, returned to Nashville after viewing the 2015 Venice Biennale, she reported on many thought-provoking works of art. In particular, she was moved by a selection of photographs of Angola, Louisiana’s state penitentiary, taken by a husband-and-wife couple from New Orleans. As a photography historian whose dissertation was on Ben Shahn’s images of the South during the Great Depression, she is well steeped in the medium’s role as an agent of social justice. Dr. Edwards encouraged the curatorial team to consider featuring this work at the Frist Center to spur conversations within our community about prison farms and mass incarceration.
In agreement about the importance of this subject, I traveled to New Orleans with Dr. Edwards to meet Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick and see more of their photographs. While there, we learned that no book chronicling their careers had been published—an especially disquieting fact given that much of their work was lost in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina. We quickly saw the opportunity, and need, to share their larger oeuvre beyond our exhibition and to preserve their compelling images for future viewers.
It has been a true pleasure to see so many images and to meet two people so genuinely ccommitted to making the world a better place.
NM: Looking at these images I find it difficult to tell in what century they were made, much less what year, as it seems nothing changes. What did you find remarkable about the passage of time in these photos?
KD: Yes, looking at these images, it seems like they should have been from 1812 not 2012. In the minds of Calhoun and McCormick, slavery never really ended at Angola. One even wonders if some of the current workers of the land are descendants of the slaves.
NM: Along with the exhibition, the Frist will produce a hardcover book about Calhoun and McCormick’s career, with a foreword by Dr. Deborah Willis. Titled Louisiana Medley, Photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, it will include 70 plates. Is there a specific focus to the book, and what conversations do you hope to provoke with these images?
KD: The photos were taken by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, a husband and wife team who are committed to using their cameras as a tool for social activism and especially to raising awareness of issues surrounding our country’s prison system.
They have been documenting the African American community in New Orleans, where they were both born and raised, and its surrounding areas for the past three decades. Their work chronicles the unique traditions and deep-rooted elements of Louisiana culture that increasingly represent a vanishing way of life. They see themselves as “keepers of the culture.”
Their photographs bear witness to both the celebrations and struggles of everyday life.
But the series they are perhaps most invested in—and what has been most widely seen—it was featured in Prospect 3 in New Orleans in 2014 and at the Venice Bienale in 2015—is a body of work they call Slavery: The Prison Industrial Complex that is the result of numerous trips to Angola, which is about 135 miles northwest of New Orleans, since the early 1980s.
This body of work demonstrates the backward and exploitative use of the prisoners as field laborers. It is also meant to shed light on the cracks in our so-called “criminal justice” system and restore visibility and humanity to a population often forgotten by the public at large.
Slavery, the Prison Industrial Complex: Photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick
through May 28th
We Shall Overcome: Civil Rights and the Nashville Press, 1957-1968
March 30 – October 14th
Both the catalogue for the We Shall Overcome exhibition and the book, Louisiana Medley, Photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick can be ordered by calling the Frist Gift Shop at 615-744-3990.