Convening polyphonous voices from past and present, I Will Keep My Soul is an orchestral layering of photography, historical documents, poetry and interviews, all rooted in the social history, geography and community of New Orleans. In this prismatic artist’s book, UK-based artist Helen Cammock traverses the city, rendering her observations and encounters into reverberant texts and percipient photographic images that tender the city’s invisible histories. She weaves these contemporary sequences with archival materials from the Amistad Research Center to sustain the city’s complex past. The book object itself – its flexibility, its tactility, its use of transparent paper to layer images and texts – invites the reader into a capacious experience in which multiple and sometimes competing truths can be seen and heard.
Among the newspaper clippings, instructions for activists, a nineteenth-century publication on Creole slave songs that speak the long struggle for Civil Rights, the most persistent historical voice in I Will Keep My Soul belongs to sculptor Elizabeth Catlett whose observations punctuate each section of the book. Cammock also draws on correspondence and photographs that articulate Catlett’s participation in the Civil Rights movement as well as her struggle for agency, autonomy and support during her 1976 commission to create a bronze monument to New Orleans musician Louis Armstrong, sited at Congo Square, a place laden with histories of immense oppression as well as celebration.
The textual contributions by Jordan Amirkhani, Andrea Andersson and Kristina Kay Robinson are not positioned as traditional art criticism, but instead further deepen the reader’s knowledge, experience and understanding of the opposing forces – geographical, economic, historical, cultural – that have formed the city New Orleans.
Summoning, holding and arranging these voices with extraordinary deftness and acuity, I Will Keep My Soul coalesces into a rhizomatic and particularly American story of art and activism, of culture and capital, of being and belonging.