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New art installation at Frazier is designed to be a contemplative space, reflecting on the lives of enslaved Kentuckians

Louisville glass artist and U of L associate professor Ché Rhodes works on pieces for the latest (Un)Known Project art installation at the university's Cressman Center for Visual Arts on May 3, 2022.
Louisville glass artist and U of L associate professor Ché Rhodes works on pieces for the latest (Un)Known Project art installation at the university's Cressman Center for Visual Arts on May 3, 2022.

Frazier History Museum in Louisville unveils a new art installation this week. 

Frazier commissioned the work from glass artist and University of Louisville associate professor Ché Rhodes, in partnership with the (Un)Known Project. Through public art, events and exhibitions, the collaborative effort between IDEAS xLab, the Frazier, Roots 101 and several Louisville Metro Government departments honors Black people whose stories were nearly lost to history.

Rhodes is making glass pieces to be displayed in a recreation of a cabin where enslaved people resided.  

They’re inspired by items that belonged to Black people who were enslaved.

Rhodes said he steered away from objects “overtly or even obviously tied to enslavement, like shackles.” 

“Because when you look at, or especially touch, personal objects or the personal effects of some person, you do feel this kind of connection,” he said. 

His research for the project turned up items like clay pipes, spoons and cowbells – it wasn’t an extensive list.

“It isn’t entirely surprising, but it really makes you think about… the kind of redacted or revisionist erasure of an entire cultural history, not to mention the material wealth,” Rhodes said. 

Rhodes and his team scanned the objects, and then 3D printed them to make molds. He’s using clear glass to cast the objects for the installation. 

“If you are looking at a clear glass object, it's kind of there and not there at the same time,” he said. “And that's, I think, how we might experience the history of enslaved people. We're all aware of it… but we don't really have much in terms of historical record, any material culture to really look at. So it’s an embodiment of those things.”

Right outside the cabin housing Rhodes’ glass creations will be the clock from the Town Clock Church in New Albany, a key stop on the Underground Railroad. 

The installation will be permanent with updates every few years, but its unveiling is timed with a new exhibition opening at the Frazier June 1. 

The Commonwealth: Divided We Fall” was designed to deepen people’s understanding of Kentucky history and the diverse communities that contributed to that history.

Visitors will learn about the Underground Railroad, slave revolts and anti-slavery activism before entering the cabin “to have the artistic experience,” Frazier curator Amanda Briede said.

“I really hope that people seeing this artistic installation, along with a lot of the historic content, will allow people to stop and reflect and think about [how] we know a lot of history, but there's also a lot that we don't know,” she said.

Briede wants people to come to a museum like Frazier and “see themselves reflected in Kentucky's history.” 

“So we're trying very hard to have someone in the exhibit that everyone can relate to. And that's not just the (Un)Known Project. But also we're including LGBTQ figures, immigrants, Jewish people, women, there's someone that has a physical disability, people battling depression. So really hoping that by representing all of these different communities, Kentucky's history can be more relatable for people.”

Briede said it’s ultimately about “trying to tell stories that we haven’t heard before.”

While that will include the violence and oppression, Briede said they don’t want to show people only through the lens of acts committed against them. She thinks it’s important to show the resilience and fullness of different communities.

Stephanie Wolf is LPM's Arts & Culture Reporter. Email Stephanie at swolf@lpm.org.