In September of 2017, Nicola Lo Calzo traveled from Paris to Syracuse to participate in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence Program. For several years he has engaged in a photographic project about memories of the slave trade and documented its descendants in the African diaspora in the Americas (Cuba, Haiti, other parts of the Caribbean) and West Africa. He spent his month’s residency here exploring Central New York and photographing the rich local history of the Underground Railroad (UGRR).
Lo Calzo is not an American. His own background includes Southern Italy, Greece and the Maghreb and he splits his time living in Paris, West Africa, and the Caribbean. His position as an outsider allowed him a degree of detachment as he documented what he calls “traces of history.” His project includes photographs of historical artifacts, monuments, scenes of ordinary life in this area, portraits of locals whom he befriended, and gift shop souvenirs. Lo Calzo says he’s interested in the ways that “memory is made by layers, strata, and juxtapositions between past and present, subject and context.” From his residency photographs and research, an undeniable and complex narrative emerges about Central New York and how its multiple, sometimes competing communities have preserved or repressed history.
Lo Calzo took his exhibition title, Bundles of Wood, from a list of surviving secret code words that the Harriet Tubman Society published. The UGRR appropriated the vocabularies of both America’s new railroad system and Bible stories, especially Exodus, the story of the Israelites’ enslavement. So a conductor was a person who directly transported fugitive slaves, a station was a refuge and hiding place, the Promised Land was Canada, and Moses was Harriet Tubman. “Bundles of wood” was code for fugitive slaves whose arrival is imminent.
Lo Calzo’s photographs of the Gerrit Smith Estate in Peterboro depict the bucolic estate of a wealthy and renowned mid-19th century white abolitionist and political activist. Smith’s home, barn, and out buildings comprised an UGRR station, and today are a carefully maintained National Historic Landmark. In contrast, the home of Rev. Jermain Wesley Loguen, African American abolitionist and freed slave, was razed to make room for a Rite Aid drugstore. While Lo Calzo was photographing the Loguen site, a man approached him and rolled up his sleeve, inviting Lo Calzo to photograph his tattoo of a supplicant slave in chains. This strange coincidence or gift exemplifies Lo Calzo’s patient search for evidence of larger truth buried in daily life. This neighborhood is part of the old 15th ward, a tight knit and largely African American community that 1960s Urban Renewal projects and inner city highway construction destroyed, first by a campaign to label it a “slum,” rendering it unworthy of salvage, and then by physical destruction of its buildings and mass displacement of its residents. Lo Calzo’s image reveals and encapsulates such decisions to value and memorialize white participation in the UGRR, meanwhile actively excising sites of black history that would embody memory of that community’s own agency and participation.
Lo Calzo has chosen work that involves complicated questions of race, representation, and absence. He asks, “How is it possible that the world organized the social, political, and moral consensus around the slave trade for four centuries, and how is it possible to erase the tragedy from the collective memory of Western countries and even from textbooks?” As the artist moved through this community with his camera, he certainly documented well-known but often hidden evidence of racial bias and the forces that still enable it.
In Bundles of Wood, Lo Calzo’s captions provide the real content and historical context for each photograph. Swamp near Auburn, Finger Lakes region is a landscape image that he made near the home of Harriet Tubman. Swamps and waterways played a significant role in the UGRR because slave catchers hunted down fugitive slaves with dogs. Moving from dry land to water threw hounds off the scent, allowing fugitives to escape. Harriet Tubman used the old spiritual, Wade in the Water, to warn fugitives to get off trails on dry land and travel by water. Many of the old slave spirituals—also called map songs—had directions coded in the lyrics. Wade in the Water contains the line, “God’s gonna trouble the water,” both predicting the coming Civil War and providing the community with a testimony of hope and encouragement to endure their suffering.
The history of photography and emancipation coincide in time and importance. Orator, writer, and former slave Frederick Douglass recognized photography’s power to manage public perception and himself posed for more than 160 portraits. Lo Calzo has photographed the only known daguerreotype of the Abolitionist Convention, held in Cazenovia in 1850, and includes it here. From the center of this blurred image, Douglass stares directly into the lens with quiet dignity. Nicola Lo Calzo shares Douglass’ conviction about photography’s power both to distort and reveal reality.