Set in the soaring Grace Cathedral, art show examines the continuing impact of human bondage

Three of the artworks by Keris Salmon on view at Grace Cathedral through March 31.

When Keris Salmon, a journalist, artist and longtime friend, approached me to curate a show of her recent work We Have Made These Lands What They Are: The Architecture of Slavery, at Grace Cathedral, I felt honored.

I knew she had spent the past two years documenting ante-bellum southern plantations and slave dwellings, and that it was a unique project for her artistically and personally.

As an African-American woman married to a white man — who is the descendent of a family that owned what became the largest American tobacco plantation in the South, which enslaved 447 people over the centuries — Salmon examines her connection to her own past, her current partnership with her husband, and a future generation that will continue to wrestle with questions of identity. The result, a suite of 18 prints that combine letterpress text and photographic imagery, is powerful and poetic.

“This is our home. We have made these lands what they are,” declared a group of newly emancipated South Carolina black slaves in 1865. Over and over again, writes historian John Michael Vlach, recently freed enslaved people “expressed a surprisingly intense connection to their former places of servitude.” Many wanted to return after emancipation.


The architecture of slavery refers both to the physical places the slaves built and felt connected to throughout the South, and also to the metaphorical “structure” of slavery itself and how our modern American history is built on it.

Salmon’s research involved visiting and photographing plantations in six states. She also combed through log books, ledgers, diary entries, letters, slave auction records, transcribed WPA-era interviews, and published books to compile a narrative through voices of slaves, slave-owners and historians. By thoughtfully parsing text and pairing it with her vivid and sensitive images, she captures the spirit of the complex history of slavery.

The Tennessee State Museum has included the first series of six photographic prints with letterpress text in its collection.

Salmon attended UC Berkeley School of Journalism and was a long-time producer for NBC. As a journalist, Keris Salmon is drawn to storytelling through words, and as a visual artist she respects the way an image can bring a text alive. As a filmmaker she is refreshing the documentary form, working instead with still imagery.

The majesty of Grace Cathedral invites us to be quiet with these solemn works, displayed in long tables that ask us to bow our heads and “read” them as if reading a book, to contemplate their beauty and power in an intimate space we create for ourselves.

We Have Made These Lands What They Are: The Architecture of Slavery
A Suite of Prints by Keris Salmon
Through March 31
Grace Cathedral, San Francisco