The KAM project

Memories of slave trade and slavery, its resistances and its abolitions : a photographic investigation

The name Cham comes from a distortion, by the writers of the Bible, of the term Kam or Kem, which means “black” or “blackened” in the Pharaonic language. Egyptians used it to designate their country and, more broadly, the Africana continent. We find common roots with the words Kemi / Kembou / Kheum / Kala which mean coal / burned / black in several African languages.

Subsequently, the word was used in reference to the biblical episode in Genesis known as the “curse of Cham” [alternatively spelled Ham or Cam] in which Canaan, and with him all his descendants, was cursed by his grandfather Noah for a sin committed by his father, Cham. In Europe, the use of Cham’s curse as the first ideological basis for the justification of the inferiority of black African peoples, and thus their enslavement, appears in the seventeenth century, with the rise of sugar plantations and the increasing demand for slaves in America.

Cham/Kam is an ambivalent and polysemic word. It refers to a self-perception, that of the Africans of antiquity for whom the term had a phenotypic and ethno-geographical connotation, as well as a representation of the other, that of empires and Western elites that appropriated this term to legitimize morally and religiously the enslavement of the African peoples and the exploitation of colonized countries.

The memories of slavery are memories of an unqualified violence, that committed by western colonists, in complicity with certain local African elites, against African populations over four centuries. They are also a reminder, a reminder of contemporary struggles for human emancipation against systemic racism, xenophobia, Eurocentrism, and neoliberal capitalism. They are also the story of a formidable saga of resistance that spans eras, nations and communities in which the particular struggle of Africans for freedom stands as an emblem of the universal struggle of humans for dignity.

It was with this ideal in mind that I began my photographic wandering across the Atlantic, not so much interested in what separated us as humans - the importance of which I would later understand - but rather in seeking a common denominator, a singular element that connects us and defines us as such. I left with the very intimate and almost inexplicable conviction that it was only in the darkness of the slave ship's hold and its wounded, healed, occulted or brandished memory that I could find the true essence of our humanity.

Above all, it was a personal journey on the roads of the slave trade, in the wounds of this founding violence. I celebrated the “avengers of this world” in Haiti, I listened to the “Gods of Africa” in Benin, I shared the gift of obia in Suriname. Many friends and acquaintances, like godparents, accompanied me attentively on this initiatory journey between Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas, before finally returning to my native country, Italy.

At the cost of countless compromises, negotiations, sometimes clashes with myself, I found the fragile but living memory of the unspeakable. I breathed in the smell of it, that of cane juice in the northern plains of Haiti, of cocoa beans on the roças of Sao Tomé, or the coffee beans of the cafetales on the outskirts of Santiago de Cuba. Each of these delicious flavors paradoxically spoke to me of the pain inflicted on twelve million African women and men - and at least as many from the diaspora - to keep the sugar, chocolate and coffee economy running.

But in each of these smells, I saw reflected, like an inverted mirror, the beauty of the world, the ability to stand, the extraordinary humanity and vitality produced by the resistance to slavery. The reaction to the unspeakable had been much stronger than the history books wanted me to believe. And many practices on both sides of the Atlantic still revived the eternal struggle for dignity against injustice.

My philosophical questions about humanity raised other, more political questions. Indeed, behind the multitude of practices that I was going to discover and photograph, it was evident that African descendant’s communities were often marginalized, weakened and destitute in the face of ultra-liberal governance policies. The legacy of slavery was expressed not only in terms of resistance practices but also as the persistence of a colonial matrix power system, with its speeches and actions, its classisms and racisms. Hence my questions: What is my place in this system? Why and how am I assigned a white mask that grants me privileges from the outset, that can make my body inviolable, untouchable, powerful, in the same way that a black mask can make my friend's body and, in this case, that of the people photographed by me, vulnerable, exploitable, powerless? In what way am I invested with this power despite my background as a terrone come from the peasantry emigrated from southern Italy and my assumed condition of being LGBT in a patriarchal world? What is the origin of this binary device so powerful it levels all differences, particularities, individualisms of each one, to assign us, while separating us, to fixed identities, predetermined masks of power as well as of oppression, bearing the attributes of power as the stigmas of oppression?

I wanted to invite myself to the heart of these practices to understand all this, or at least try. I placed myself behind the camera, which was for me a new way of apprehending reality. Because in the end, more than beautiful images, I was looking to reinvent myself with new ties and the deepest meaning of my existence: the relationship with others.

Nicola Lo Calzo, November 2019

Ghosts Among Us: The Living Presence of Slaves In Our World.  

“Slavery is a ghost, both the past and a living presence; and the problem of historical representation is how to represent that ghost, something that is and yet is not,” Haitian historian and post-colonial thinker Michel-Ralph Trouillot has written.[1] The problem of historical representation of colonial slavery is also, if not more so, the problem of visual representation. What should we see of something that “is and yet is not”? Of something that has been so central to the history of modernity, of the West and of the world, and yet has been so marginalized or erased in national European narratives? That remains a contentious issue in Africa, though historical revision is finally being done? Further, the representation of colonial slavery is tied with the representation of the Black body in Western imagination and of the transformation of skin color into a social and cultural marker. What must be shown? An how?

Slavery is inseparable from the world of Western consumption, of the introduction of the sweet and addictive products of slavery in the global market. Let us just think of how sugar, coffee, tobacco, cotton, and chocolate deeply transformed and affected European imagination, tastes, social and cultural ways of being and receiving, of presenting oneself to the world, of becoming a man or a woman. Yet, we must be careful so that European representations of slavery do not become our only repertoire. We must shift our gaze from the Western pictorial construction of the enslaved to the world that slaves created with their knowledge, their languages, their cultural practices, and their philosophies. What must be seen? What must be shown?

The slave is a liminal figure, a ghost that haunts our world. His spectral presence must be preserved, Achille Mbembe has argued, so that “he” keeps alive the crime that was committed, “he” keeps open the wound of exile, despair, hope and resistance so that we continue to fight for the abolition of all forms of bondage and servitude. Indeed, in the Caribbean, in Africa, in the Americas, in the Indian Ocean, the memories of slavery are first and foremost the memories of the anti-slavery struggle. The cries, the songs and the texts of the enslaved, the oral memories of the Haitian revolutionaries, the epic of the maroons, the resistance of enslaved women, all constitute a repertoire, a vast library of what was and what is to come, that is a world where liberty and equality are not abstract principles but the foundations of living together.        

In his project “CHAM,” Nicola Lo Calzo explores the multiple forms in which the legacy of slavery has been passed down. Travelling in Senegal, Benin, Ghana, Togo, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Haiti, Louisiana, Mississippi, Guiana, Surinam and soon Brazil, Cuba and Angola, Lo Calzo records forms of subjectivity and representation that link past and present. We glimpse several notions of identity discourse, ways of reinventing oneself, of reinventing tradition and of writing history from below. Lo Calzo even expands our understanding of the power of racial ideology with the astonishing pictures of white families descendants of slaves’ owners in Louisiana.

However, none of his photos seeks to provoke abstract indignation. This is their strength. For too long, the West has been looking at its history as colonial powers through a moralistic lens, marginalizing in the process its concrete and material but also narcissistic interests, in buying, deporting, and exploiting African women and men, reducing them into objects of commerce and a racialized and disposable workforce. Lo Calzo eschews this pitfall. He does not seek to produce in the spectator an easy and confortable position but rather he invites him/her to contemplate the memories of slavery as they are translated by individuals, by a group, by a community.

Nicola Lo Calzo, whom I met in 2009 when he first introduced me to his CHAM project, is contributing to the emerging body of art work that seeks to revise the representation of slavery. By taking the contemporary expressions of slavery as the central object of his work, he challenges the discourse that slavery is a thing from the past and shows its living presence. Taking inventory of this living presence, Lo Calzo weaves aesthetic and ethics together.       

Françoise Vergès    

[1] Michael-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History 
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), p. 147.

Press Review


To date, the work in progress Cham has been founded by artist residencies, print sales, press publications, talks, exhibitions and donations. Any form of collective or individual support for the production or the diffusion of the project is truly important for the advancement of research.
You can become a partner and support the Cham project in different ways: sponsorship, purchase of a print or through a donation. For further information, write to:

Unesco, Fondation Fokal, Fondation zinsou, Fondation Joan Mitchell, Fonds de dotation Buchet-Ponsoye, Dominique Fiat, La Balsa Arte, Luz, Afrique in Visu, La Tête dans les Images, CPMHE, Ministère des Outre-Mer, Tropenmuseum, LightWork, Lagosphoto, Portrait(s), Region Guadeloupe, Bnf, Archivi Alinari, Vogue Italia, Internazionale, Le Monde, Lille3000, Macaal, Château des Ducs de Brétagne, Aides.


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