Habitable Air

Exploring the Unseen: Courtney Desiree Morris Reveals the Power of Memory and Black Place-Making in “Seeing Stories Beneath the Surface”

 In a captivating journal article titled “Seeing Stories Beneath the Surface,” published by NACLA Report on the Americas, visual/conceptual artist and Assistant Professor Courtney Desiree Morris leads readers on a profound exploration of a small Louisiana town. This town, deeply affected by the petrochemical industry, unveils landscapes and memories that provoke deep reflection.

Morris, a senior researcher on Habitable Air and faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley, unravels the intricate connection between memory, power, and Black place-making in her compelling exploration.

Through her lens as both an artist and scholar, Morris delves into the unseen truths that shape our understanding of history, resilience, and the marginalised communities impacted by environmental injustices. Drawing inspiration from her personal connection to Mossville, a historical freedmen’s community in Louisiana, she captures haunting scenes of memory and the relentless influence of the petrochemical industry on Black lives.

The article reflects Morris’s deep engagement with the concept of visibility and the complexities of marking something as unseeable while discussing its visibility. She challenges the prioritisation of the visual and prompts readers to consider the forms of knowledge and truth-telling that may be marginalised in our society. Morris urges us to delve beneath the surface of images and connect with collective memories and the often-unapparent patterns of slow violence.

As a researcher, Morris weaves together historical accounts, personal narratives, and striking photographs to illuminate the story of Mossville, a town marked by dispossession, environmental degradation, and the perpetual dream of Manifest Destiny. She paints a vivid picture of the Atakapa-Ishak, the Indigenous people who once inhabited the land, and their tragic decline due to disease and land theft. Through her ancestral ties to Mossville, Morris presents an intimate perspective on the community’s resilience, tracing its origins as a haven for formerly enslaved individuals who secured land grants after the Civil War.

The encroachment of the petrochemical industry emerges as a central theme in Morris’s work. With great sensitivity, she captures the rapid expansion of industrial plants around Mossville, ultimately leading to its demise. She documents the ruins of demolished homes, abandoned cabins being reclaimed by nature, and streets that once bustled with life. By doing so, Morris aims to evoke a visual reading practice that allows viewers to see the unseeable and to comprehend the gravity of what has been lost.

Through her photography series titled “Solastalgia,” Morris expresses her grief and anger over the erasure of this vibrant community. She embraces the term coined by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, using it to articulate the sense of existential loss and displacement that arises when people lose the landscapes they call home. Morris’s series serves as an archive, preserving the rich social life, cultural practices, and collective memory of Mossville’s Black and Indigenous inhabitants.

In her powerful examination of Black social life and space, Morris challenges the claim to transparent space and exposes the hierarchies and spatial inequalities that persist. She highlights the ongoing struggles for spatial agency, the alterability of space, and the necessity of recognising diverse geographic visions. By amplifying the spatial practices of Black communities, Morris invites readers to embrace alternative narratives and resist accepting dominant narratives as absolute truth.

“Seeing Stories Beneath the Surface” is a poignant reminder that nothing is truly unseeable; it is our capacity and inclination to see that may be limited. Morris calls upon us to cultivate a deeper understanding, to recognise the gravitational pull of the past, and to acknowledge the unseen forces that shape our present reality. Her work serves as a catalyst for change, inviting us to question our perception of power, history, and collective memory while championing the urgency of reclaiming forgotten stories.

As Courtney Desiree Morris continues to inspire through her artistry and scholarship, her dedication to shedding light on marginalised communities and the power of memory will undoubtedly leave an indelible mark on both academia and the art world.

You can read the full article by following this link.