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Art Project Acknowledging The Lives Of Unnamed Slaves Receives NEA Grant

Slave inventory from Madison, Kentucky currently on display at the Frazier Museum.
Courtesy Josh Miller/IDEAS xLab
Slave inventory from Madison, Kentucky currently on display at the Frazier Museum.

Artist-run nonprofit IDEAS xLab has received $75,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts for its “(Un)Known Project,” which explores racism, inequity and justice. 

A press release from Louisville-based IDEAS xLab said the project has been in the works for about a year.

The “(Un)Known Project” will provide a creative space and path for “learning, healing, reflection, reconciliation, and action by telling the stories — of both known and unknown — men, women and children that were formerly enslaved and hidden figures in Louisville, Kentucky,”  thefourth most segregated city in the country, according to the nonprofit’s website. 

A visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated to the Black people who were lynched and enslaved in this country, planted the seed for the project for Hannah Drake, a Louisville author, poet and IDEAS xLab’s cultural strategist.

“On most of the pillars, if not all of them, was the word unknown,” Drake said. “And it just didn't feel right to me that someone existed and lived and breathed, and they were unknown.” 

When she returned to Kentucky she began to visit plantation sites to conduct research. One of those plantations had more than 50 slaves at one time. Drake asked a researcher for the names of the enslaved individuals. 

“The researcher said, ‘We don't know because most of them are listed as Negro gal or Negro wench, and we don't know their name,” Drake said.

She also visited cemeteries, including the Freedom Land cemetery in New Albany, Indiana. Again, many formerly enslaved Black people weren’t given the dignity of having their names recorded — “their headstone were just numbers,” Drake said. 

“It didn't sit right with me that people were in this world and they have been intentionally erased from history,” Drake said. ”I think it's unfair. They lived. They existed. They contributed to who I am and who many Black people are today and I wanted to find a way to acknowledge that.”

While the project has been in the works for some time, it's now coinciding with a period in U.S. history in which people are taking the the streets to demand justice and equity for Black people. 

“Breonna Taylor almost was one of those women who would have just died…and her story would have been buried,” Drake said. “So much is coming out now that I hope will be beneficial to the city. And certainly I hope this city will be appreciative of this project when you think about the Castleman statue coming down, and how we can use art, in a positive way in art to be inclusive, and use art to speak to a larger conversation.”

As part of the project, they will create a physical artwork along the Ohio River, which will feature a limestone bench and cast feet that will lead down to the river from the bench.

"We chose limestone because, on this side of the river, when slaves would try to cross the river, sometimes they would be killed and the bodies would be left in the river and covered with limestone,” Drake said.

The Frazier Museum, Roots 101 African American Museum, Louisville Metro Public Works and the city's public art program are among the collaborators on the project, which will also feature events, photography and poetry. 

According to the release, the artwork along the river will serve “as a cultural heritage destination, the (Un)Known Project will be co-created as a significant marker in Louisville, designating the location as a monumental site and symbol of African American history, centering on the Black contribution to Kentucky.” 

"The (Un)Known Project will honor the lived experience of enslaved individuals and the significance of the Ohio River in their pursuit of freedom,” Sarah Lindgren, the city's public art administrator, said in the release. “Reinterpretation of cultural sites remains a critical element in Louisville’s path toward acknowledgment and atonement for our history of systemic racism.”

Roots 101 founder Lamont Collins said the project is vital to the community: “At Roots 101, we understand that legacies matter.” 

The grant comes as part of the NEA’s second major funding round of the 2020 fiscal year, during which $84 million in grants were approved. This is one of more than 50 grants distributed across the country from the NEA’s Our Town creative place-making program, which the agency describes as funding that supports “projects that integrate arts, culture, and design activities into efforts that strengthen communities by advancing local economic, physical, and/or social outcomes.”

“These awards demonstrate the resilience of the arts in America, showcasing not only the creativity of their arts projects but the organizations’ agility in the face of a national health crisis,” Mary Anne Carter, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, said. “We celebrate organizations like IDEAS xLab for providing opportunities for learning and engagement through the arts in these times.”  

The NEA distributed 18 grants to Kentucky from this round of funding, totaling $1,464,335. Other Kentucky grantees include $50,000 to the Speed Art Museum for community outreach projects in Louisville’s Russell neighborhood, $75,000 to Appalachian Artisan Center of Kentucky in Hindman and $15,000 to Bourbon Baroque music ensemble in Louisville.

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