Collection 1970s–Today

Dionne Lee. True North. 2019 206

Collage of gelatin silver prints with graphite, 15 7/8 × 11 7/8" (40.3 × 30.2 cm). Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © 2021 Dionne Lee

My name is Dionne Lee. I grew up in New York City, which isn't where you would think of having access to green spaces. But I actually grew up in Harlem. And I also grew up right across from Central Park, and I think that that changed how I could imagine like nature or green spaces.

It was once called Seneca Village, which was a town of affluent Black people who lived there. And then to make Central Park they removed them. I believe in ancestral trauma, and I believe that when you take into consideration the acts of violence that have happened in such spaces against Black bodies, it makes sense that that would feel uneasy. But at the same time, I often think about how those spaces were also refuge. Especially when you think about people fleeing enslavement, traveling North, right? They had to make their way through the woods. They had to understand the landscape in such an intimate way.

I got interested in survival skills for a couple of reasons. I mean one of them is that I have a lot of real paranoia and fear around like what's happening within the climate crisis and who is most affected by that. And I find them kind of funny in a way because we see these as antiquated resources that we probably don't really need. Like why would we need to know how to start a fire from scratch? Why would we need to know how to find groundwater when we have all these technological tools that are supposed to be able to help us through anything?

So in the North and True North pieces, in my research and looking up how to find the North Star, I came across the fact there's actually two different Norths. There's the magnetic North and True North. The difference is really slight. But to me that was interesting because I think about North as this aspirational direction or associated with freedom. But the fact that there were technically two felt like this weird trick to me.

One print involves two of my hands, pinky out, thumb out, and then middle three fingers down with both hands, and the thumbs are touching. And what that's doing is it’s a motion to measure the sky. If you were pointing to the end of the Big Dipper with one pinky, the other one should be pointing to the North Star. If you're in the Northern Hemisphere that should work.

I'm thinking about the body as a compass. I think about people who were fleeing the South during enslavement, and how potentially my ancestors could have held their body in that same position to find navigation. There's a power in recognizing that we were the experts of the land here. I do think there's something about reclaiming that power as an act of resilience, and as an act of resistance also.

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