LOS ANGELES — “I feel like I’m a child for the first time,” says one interviewee in I Will Keep My Soul, a 90-minute film by British artist Helen Cammock. The film is set up as a diptych. In one half, her subject, a Black person in light jeans sitting on a park bench, reflects on their experience climbing trees, while in the other half, the person does exactly that. Due to “Blackness and Queerness,” they elaborate, “there’s a concealment of just desires and pleasures that I feel like I didn’t have access to.”
The dance between concealment and resistance is at the heart of I Will Keep My Soul, which sits at the center of Cammock’s solo exhibition of the same name. On view through August 5 at Art and Practice in Leimert Park, it expresses the research the artist recently conducted at Rivers Institute for Contemporary Art & Thought and the Amistad Research Center. Surrounding the gallery space are visual poems, ceramics, and even the sound of her trumpet, which she began practicing in New Orleans.
“if you take everything you like just because you like it,” one poem goes, “just because you want it the ghosts will have no place to play and the children no place to rest.” Her poems read like missives from her research: “Blue n0tes / swing / in a / humid / breeze” and “To learn to / dance / with fireflies / first / accept the / dark.” Books from thinkers like W. E. B. Du Bois, Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Walker, and bell hooks are arrayed on a working table, as if providing a glimpse into the artist’s work space.
The film is nominally centered on the story of the late artist Elizabeth Catlett’s struggles to establish the Louis Armstrong sculpture in Armstrong Park in New Orleans in 1976. That said, Cammock achieves this depiction through interviews with unnamed subjects, who wax poetic on different aspects of life in New Orleans. Without context, viewers see the city through the lens of the speakers’ stories rather than their specific titles, accomplishments, and histories.
One interviewee, a music teacher, confesses that he didn’t think women could play the trumpet, “because I didn’t see them playing and then it wasn’t until I went to Loyola’s jazz camp, is where I saw the first girl actually play the trumpet …. And I was like, okay, girls can actually play trumpet too.” Alongside the teacher in the diptych are his students — three school-age girls playing the trumpet as he guides them through the lessons.
Between the interviews, Cammock brings us into the landscape of New Orleans, with a few long, lingering takes on the Mississippi River, on the details of homes, on the trees and parks along the water. These create the backdrop for a film that feels like a meditation on the eponymous soul of creative life in the city. “The artist has less say,” one interviewee notes about the struggles of developing her creative career while maintaining a livelihood. “You know they could have all the determination but they don’t have equal determination.”
Catlett’s words appear alongside artists talking about their contemporary struggles, as if offering advice from the past. “Advance is difficult,” reads one quote, “and departure from the accepted path is dangerous but difficulty and danger are old acquaintances.”
Helen Cammock: I Will Keep My Soul continues at Art + Practice (3401 West 43rd Place, Leimert Park, Los Angeles) through August 5. The exhibition was organized by the Rivers Institute for Contemporary Art & Thought (Rivers) and the California African American Museum (CAAM). It was curated by Jordan Amirkhani and Andrea Andersson, Rivers, in partnership with Essence Harden, CAAM, as part of a multiyear collaboration between Rivers and CAAM.