For centuries, artists of many persuasions have tried to portray the character of New Orleans, but the place resists capture. Its essence is to have uncountable essences, the prodigious layers of unrepeatable history both hidden and everywhere evident. It is a conundrum and a paradox, a city of joy and a compendium of sorrows.
Only an artist deploying similarly varied mediums could hope to approach its complexities. With I Will Keep My Soul, Helen Cammock, who uses film, photography, poetry, and performance to examine her subjects, mixes viewpoints on the ways New Orleans’s variegated past informs its present. A British artist who shared the 2019 Turner Prize with three others, she spent time in 2022 in the city and the archives of the Amistad Research Center. The result is a wide-ranging exhibition currently at Art + Practice in Los Angeles (in partnership with the California African American Museum), which will travel to New Orleans in October through December 2023, where it will be expanded at several sites with film, outdoor installations of her text-based work, musical performance, and the work of artists who influenced her appreciation of the city. The accompanying book is sumptuously published by Siglio Press in conjunction with the Rivers Institute for Art and Thought and CAAM.
The book is a trip. Cammock inadvertently captures her project’s modus operandi — she describes the layers of everyday sound that have long rearranged themselves into music to her ear as “the composition of energies.” It ventures near and far to collect representative New Orleans “energies”: the persistent ghost of the South’s blood-drenched cotton and sugar trade, the African-American artist Elizabeth Catlett’s work and philosophy (including her 1976 commission for a statue of Louis Armstrong, to reside in the eponymous park that also encloses Congo Square, the historic meeting place for the region’s enslaved people), Catlett’s posters in aid of Angela Davis’s fight against imprisonment, and the cohesive powers of music for generations of Black citizens. A subtext throughout is the importance and fecundity of the archive, a massing of proof. In this case, proof of one artist’s adamant perseverance, and of the essential role of art in activism. By extension, we are to understand Cammock’s practice as activist in nature, just as Catlett asserted of her art. Through taking her work and words as subject, the later artist thereby claims the earlier as a direct predecessor.
To that end, the book is rife with reproductions: correspondences, sheet music, news clips, and broadsides. A manifesto by James Farmer, co-founder of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and organizer of the first Freedom Ride, lends the title to Cammock’s exhibit and book. Describing the goals of the protest, and the treatment its participants received in jail, his declaration ends with the resilient cry of one prisoner against guards’ reprisal tactics, which included taking away mattresses: “‘Come and get my mattress,’ he shouted. ‘I will keep my soul.’”
The book is foremost a paean to that kind of resilience, which is conveyed most dramatically by its photographs of contemporary New Orleans. Young musicians take up brass instruments, as if directly from the hand of Louis Armstrong. People continue treading the same paths as their creative forebears: images of feet and pavement, and streetscapes, recur like the chorus of a song. The book opens with a photo that encapsulates its origin story: the disembodied hands of a Black individual pull out the drawer of a card catalogue. This is where we must always begin, it suggests, in the collected evidence of our strength.
How does a book’s static format capture the temporal, ever-changing nature of gesture, thought, music, all the motion that defines social history? By doing something very close to what I Will Keep My Soul accomplishes: breaking through the fourth wall of the page. We are not only invited to flip back and forth between visual elements, but we are given a means to mediate them. Interspersed throughout are several transparent pages. When turned they seem to introduce a sense of time’s hazy scrim falling over the fresh clarity of the present — and when paged back to lie atop the facing image, they reverse time. This enacts the way layers of time are sequentially excavated in the archive, the very enterprise that underpins the artist’s multi-tiered project.
When Cammock arrived in NOLA more than a half-century after the sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, she would find herself something of a shadow to Catlett. Or is Catlett her shadow? Both operate from a belief in art’s inherently advocative power, how it brings requisite intellect and heart to the furtherance of a cause. In a 1961 speech, Catlett declared that in the contemporary climate “[n]either the negro artist nor American art can afford to take an isolated position.” It is a continued necessity in 2023, Helen Cammock effectively agrees. Every page of her project accumulates into confirmation.
I Will Keep My Soul gives representation to the rich cultural silt history has deposited in the Mississippi Delta, evoking the push-pull of natural and unnatural forces. The flowing musicality of its composition reminds the viewer of a truth as central as anyone can be about a kaleidoscope-like New Orleans: It has always kept moving, and always to its own tune.
I Will Keep My Soul by Helen Cammock (2023) is published by Siglio Press and is available online and at independent bookstores.