Critic and curator
Critic and curator
"To date, traces of the Underground Railroad legacy in New York State are rare and selected. Bundles of Wood wishes to address this double standard in the way of preserving the local heritage and at the same time, giving multiple perspectives – abolitionists on one hand and fugitives on the other."
Ten years ago, Nicola Lo Calzo began Cham, an extensive project that so far has traced the legacies of slavery across fifteen countries. The latest instalment, Bundles of Wood, focuses on the remnants of the Underground Railroad in New York – a clandestine network of routes and safe houses that helped liberate 100,000 enslaved people during the American Civil War. Instead of focusing on the atrocities of slavery, Bundles of Wood (which takes its name from the railroad code once used to mean “Fugitives Expected”) reflects on the histories of resistance – and the struggle against systematic racism which the African American community still faces.
To work with such sensitive subject matter, Lo Calzo finds it essential to combine his own images with archive materials: “historical and social contextualisation is fundamental when dealing with issues such as the memory of slavery, the representation of the African diaspora, and the fact that I am often an outsider in communities where I live and work.”
This approach is apparent in Bundles of Wood. A contemporary portrait of two women posing against a wall in Syracuse, New York, is juxtaposed with a rare black and white photograph of a young Harriet Tubman. A map documenting the railroad routes that connected the Southern states to the North sits alongside an overtly symbolic image of a key on red carpeted steps. Through the incorporation of the archive, Lo Calzo creates a dialogue between the past and present. This prompts not-so-distant memories from the nineteenth century to resurface (in the artist’s words) “into an aesthetic experience that aspires to be a political testimony”.
Despite Lo Calzo’s meticulous research, his subjects are not always planned in advance. One of the series’ most memorable images came from a spontaneous meeting. Whilst visiting the former home of Jermain Loguen (an abolitionist, freed man and Syracuse’s Underground Railroad stationmaster), the artist sparked conversation with a local man, Sir Bailey. “We started talking about the memory of the place, when Sir Bailey pulled his sleeve up, showing me the tattoo of an abolitionist on his arm. At that moment, I made my photograph.”
This striking image - a man in shackles, inked upon Sir Bailey’s arm - is a reminder of the traumas of slavery, the ramifications of which continue to this day. Yet, by focusing on the work of abolitionists, there is optimism in Lo Calzo’s Bundles of Wood: “The history of slavery is both a history of domination and a history of resistance, depending on the perspective.”
About Jeanne Mercier
Jeanne Mercier has been a curator and critic since 2006, based between Europe and Africa. She is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Afrique in Visu, a platform for photographers in Africa. Mercier is currently working on several exhibition projects in Europe and Africa and collaborates with different magazines, including British Photography Journal, Fisheye Magazine, Diptyk, and Yet Magazine.