For our exhibition Student Prize 2018, on view till January 5, 2019, APG’s Esther Griffin will be talking with the artists about their work and their upcoming career as a photographer. Student Prize is a juried exhibition for photography students who were nominated by their faculties. From all nominees, winners were chosen, and their work is on view in the group show. Next up is Tony Smart.
Tony first picked up the camera at the age of 14. After high school, he entered the military which allowed him to travel extensively, an experience that expanded his understanding of the art as a global community; it also exposed him to art and artist from around the world. He started art school 22 years ago, but could not finish it due to a traffic accident. A few years ago, he enrolled again, and he is now a senior BFA at Georgia State.
In your project you look for lost grave sites of enslaved people, your ancestors. Is your project intended as a memorial or is there more to it?
I thought a lot about what my photos are bringing to the table. It is more than a memory now. One of the things my photos do is mark the permanent location of where these graves are. They are not lost anymore. The longitudes and latitudes are included in the photo descriptions/labels, so now anyone in the world can punch in those numbers on Google maps and it will zoom in exactly where that graveyard is. So now it is a memorial, it is always there and so it is more than a memory now. That was important to me from the outset of this project. I used the prop to visually leave a landmark, so you can actually physically see where these bodies lay and – what matters to me – that the bodies are still there, they were never moved. I am hoping that this fact resounds loudly, as far as this project goes.
So not just the photo itself is a memorial, but you physically created a memorial on the locations themselves?
Yes, I wanted to physically memorialize their spot, as it should be. If the bodies of my ancestors are laid here, it should be memorialized. What you find in a lot of instances is that the graves of white people are in close proximity to these locations, but in contrast to the sites where white bodies lie, these locations are not marked or maintained. For instance, when you type in the longitude and latitude of the Walmart site, you can zoom in and you can actually see a six foot tall mausoleum where they incased the white bodies, but the black bodies are under the pavement; there is no memorial, no words, no homage paid, so I used that marker as a tribute to my ancestors, the black bodies that are still laying there.
Is it also an accusation for the circumstances these grave sites are in today?
I think it is always a conversation and an accusation about that. This country has been very poorly dealing with those accusations and conversations and not wanting to have them, and the fact that there is just pavement now means the country has to have those conversations. Hopefully with my monuments, we can have that conversation: what is the importance of a black body in this country, what is the importance of the black bodies that really built this country? One thing that is striking in Georgia, is that Georgia is really the state that put America on the international market, because of cotton. The hands that planted that cotton and harvested that cotton are invisible, there is no conversation about that. I hope my pictures can start a general narrative about the reality of this photo.
What do you hope people will talk about when they do have these conversations?
I hope people will at least punch in one longitude and latitude, zoom in and look at either gravestones or the final resting place of bodies that now have been disturbed. I hope that people will be shocked, I hope that they will gasp, because some of these places are so every day: before people thought they were just running to Walmart to get some milk or a card, but now they are running to Walmart and they are walking over the bodies of enslaved African Americans. Now they know. That type of response can help the broader narrative of coming to reckoning with this country: the body, the black body, how it is perceived, agency… it is just a matter of keep pecking away. We can live with it, because we don’t see it. As an artist I can shine a light on this, do research and bring it to the forefront in a way everyone can relate to. Hopefully people will also take away that this is a permanent thing, they can come back to it. It is a tangible, living work of art that will always be there and says a lot about us as a country and as a people.
In 2013 the project for a National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans started, but after 5 years it is still a work in progress. How do you find the sites in Georgia?
Because of the project, I have become an amateur historian. The slave trade was well recorded, but what was not well recorded was what happened to African Americans once they moved off the plantations, because that sort of information was not valuable to white people. The people who did keep those records were the black churches, they kept these bibles which are studied by genealogists. I get a lot of information from them. Newspapers and television have also been good sources. Because every now and then they do these articles about lost towns or graveyards that have been found. Obviously, the best database now in Georgia is the department of transportation, because they build roads and they cut across all these strips of land. They build local roads, state roads and highways and find remains of bodies doing so. When they do, the site needs to be investigated, trying to determine who’s bones they are. They leave a permanent record.
It is a crime to disturb gravesites, so the department of transportation has to deal with it. The way how they deal with it, also offers insight in the way the black body is valued today. A good example can be found in the south of Atlanta, where the I75 and I85 were built. When they found a white graveyard, they decided to simply move the road to the left, so not to disturb it. As for the black graveyard, they put the highway to the left of it and the off-ramp to the right of it, so the bodies are right in the middle. Over 1000 bodies, only 53 tombstones.
You started this project in January 2018. What has impressed you most – good or bad – during this project so far?
One experience recently happened; I went to Madison, GA, where a bridge was built over a gravesite. They have been pulling bodies out of the embankment of that bridge ever since they built it. When I visited the site, I found human bones. I called the police department and reported my find. They took my information and asked me to send photos. I sent them emails, but to this day, they haven’t called me back. People don’t want to have this conversation. The police didn’t investigate or follow up. It is my assumption that they know it is an African American gravesite and they know the bones are there, and it is not a crime scene. To me, as a black person coming face to face with these remains, reporting this to have it properly dealt with, and they don’t respond, that was shocking and a lack of respect to the people buried then and to me now.
Who do you collect? Who is your inspiration?
At the moment I am collecting my peers. I love the fact that I am surrounded by these wonderful young and enthusiastic artists and photographers. They are in a place where they can sell their work at a good price. I also collect books about artists like Charles White, Mark Bradford, and Kara Walker.