Dawoud Bey’s latest body of work is a series of black-and-white photographs that reimagine sites along the last stages of the Underground Railroad.
Photographer Dawoud Bey, the recent recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, decided to make a fundamental change in his work as he approached his 60th year. Already renowned as a portraitist, he turned his attention to history, beginning with a group of works that memorialized the six young black people tragically killed in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. He continues this engagement with African American history in his latest project.
Accustomed to urban scenes and subjects, he focused on a very different landscape: thickets, a picket fence, an open field, and Lake Erie. Bey also returned to traditional black-and-white printing, and more particularly to gelatin silver prints, a process he had not used since the early 1990s. Through these choices Bey wanted to make a far greater shift: from pictures of the here and now to the vast, historical subject of the Underground Railroad, the network of secret routes and safe houses that aided enslaved African Americans on their path to freedom.
Bey also wished to pay homage to photographer Roy DeCarava (1919–2009) and poet Langston Hughes (1901–1967), who each addressed the African American experience in their work in part by foregrounding what DeCarava called “a world shaped by blackness.” DeCarava’s mastery of even the darkest tones gave Bey a model for depicting the twilight uncertainty that those fleeing slavery confronted as they traveled northward. Meanwhile, the closing couplet of Hughes’s short poem “Dream Variations”—“Night coming tenderly / Black like me.”—inspired the exhibition title. Bey has said that he wanted to hold darkness itself in a tender embrace.
The result is a series of 25 large-scale photographs, most of which are on view in this presentation—the first showing of Bey’s latest body of work in a museum. All the pictures were made around Cleveland and Hudson, Ohio, a final way station for those seeking freedom in Canada. The photographs show homes and patches of land that are rumored to have formed part of the invisible railroad “track,” leading those seeking freedom from one unfamiliar place to the next.
Bey chose a dense, vibrant selection of 19th- and 20th-century photographs from the Art Institute’s collection to hang directly outside the exhibition gallery, works that complement the exhibition by suggesting the range of ways that the American landscape has been represented in photographs and the place of African Americans within that physical and social landscape.
The series Night Coming Tenderly, Black was commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.
Image: Dawoud Bey, Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky), 2017.