The famed Underground Railroad was not, of course, an actual railroad.
Nor did it literally travel underground. But it did involve real places, stretching from the Deep South to Canada. Pittsburgh-based artists Kelsey Robinson and Di-Ay Battad found one of those places recently an hour northwest of Pittsburgh, in New Brighton. The house's current occupant showed them around.
“We ended up in the attic,” says Robinson. “There [were] these false walls where actually you could see where the slaves would hide.”
Robinson and Battad had bicycled to New Brighton as an exploratory foray for a much bigger research project. In addition to studying the Heinz History Center exhibit From Slavery to Freedom, they plan in May to begin a 2,000-mile bike trip from the historic slaving port of Mobile, Ala., all the way to Canada, where many escaped slaves were bound.
“I feel like we hear a lot about the major figures of the Underground Railroad,” says Robinson. “We hear about Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass, and we don’t hear about the [other] actual people who were passing through this land. That is kind of the basic idea of the project: to visit different places, places with a lot of history, a lot of abolitionist history, and find these first-person narratives, and find ways to share them, and artistic ways to share them.”
Audiences can get a first glimpse of the project Friday, when Robinson and Battad present Talking With Ghosts About Freedom. The multimedia exhibition combines dance, music, video and more to depict a fictional escaped slave and one of her descendants. The work, the result of a month-long Freshworks Residency at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, takes place at the Alloy Studios, in Friendship.
The women in the story are “talking about their relationship with rivers, and with water: how the elder ancestor was subject to the water and how the descendant utilizes the water both industrially and spiritually,” says Robinson.
Talking With Ghosts touches on the story of Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade (and the subject of a 1931 manuscript by legendary author Zora Neale Hurston, which was finally published earlier this year). Robinson and Battad also draw on the slave narratives compiled by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s and other historical sources.
The video displays and projections include documentary footage the pair shot during their travels. Talking with Ghosts also incorporates knit sculptures that reference iron collars and other instruments of slavery; soundscapes including nature sounds and Cameroonian funeral ceremonies; and other artifiacts.
“I hope that people walk away wanting to learn more about these narratives, and walk away thinking more about history from the bottom up, and not necessarily just the winner’s history and these, these dates, but as real people who lived full powerful lives,” says Robinson.
The performance part of the exhibit lasts about 30 minutes, complemented by video displays in the lobby that will be accessible all evening.
The Alloy Studios are located in Friendship. Admission is “pay what makes you happy.”