From Absence to Presence Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland

Read Time: 2 minutes

Throughout February, SEGD is focusing on the importance of experience design and experience designers to amplify, celebrate and bring Black culture and history to the forefront. To do this, we are sharing a curated weekly series of video presentations from 2020 featuring designers in our SEGD community speaking about their roles in presenting difficult historical topics while engaging audiences through specific design strategies. SEGD presents the fourth and final video in the series, “From Absence to Presence” by RE:site, on February 24.

In 2016 a group of archaeology students and their professors at St. Mary’s College in Maryland excavated an athletic field on their college campus. A new sports stadium had been planned for the site, and per the school’s protocols, the excavation was conducted before construction of the new building.

Imagine the groups’ surprise when they uncovered the remains of slave quarters.

The administration at St. Mary’s had records of farmers once owning this land, but there was no memory of a slave plantation.

After the excavations were complete, the administration held a design competition for a physical commemoration to be built on the site. The public art and design firm RE:site, co-founded by Shane Allbritton and Norman Lee, was awarded the commission.

“’From Absence to Presence.’ This is our permanent installation that addresses slavery through historical documents, archeological research, and poetry,” says Allbritton.

RE:site’s winning design features a structure shaped and proportioned like a slave cabin, but its exterior is wrapped in a combination of ipe wood and highly polished stainless steel. Engraved in the steel panels is text written by poet Quenton Baker. It is a redacted poem that Baker created from runaway slave ads, imagining how the enslaved people, who once lived on and worked this land, might have told their story.

“We felt compelled to bring these (previously unknown) stories to light, stories that have been obscured from the historical record,” says Allbritton. “We wanted to tell the stories of the marginalized through commemoration—stories that reveal our society.”

“It was important that this particular commemoration engage present day,” continues Lee. “This whole notion of juxtaposing past and present, which we do in our other public art (installations), is particularly relevant to his project. We found the real need to have the narrative and the experience of the piece really butt-up against daily life.”

See how Allbritton, Lee and Baker did this by watching their video presentation “From Absence to Presence: Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland.”

Here is the complete list of SEGD’s February 2021 video series:

Feb 3 — “Truth Telling and Reconciliation Experiences” (Local Projects)

Feb 10 — “Elevating Untold Narratives” (Ralph Appelbaum Associates)

Feb 17 — “Equity and Justice in the COVID Age” (Isometrics Studio)

Feb 24 — “From Absence to Presence” (RE:site)