Review: Dawoud Bey Reimagines the Underground Railroad

Dawoud Bey
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #18 (Creek and House), 2017. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © Dawoud Bey.

The Art Institute of Chicago presents the exhibition, Dawoud Bey: Night Coming Tenderly, Black, a collection of Bey’s black and white photographs that reimagine various sites along the last stages of the Underground Railroad.

Bey’s photographs portray a landscape shrouded in darkness that allowed fugitive slaves to stealthily move across the Cleveland and Hudson, Ohio, area, (an important destination on the Underground Railroad) as they made their way towards Lake Erie and then the final 50-mile leg of the journey  to  Canada. Because many of the original sites of the Underground Railroad no longer exist, the photographs are not a literal documentation, but rather, Bey’s perspective on how this landscape in Ohio played an important role in history.

Bey effectively re-creates the experience of fugitive slaves traveling through an unfamiliar landscape by creating photographs cast in dark tones to illustrate how the night assisted them in their path toward freedom. Because all the photographs have a dark tint, one would assume the photos were taken at night, but actually the photos were all shot during daylight hours and then printed with imposed darkness.

Dawoud Bey
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #12 (The Marsh), 2017. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © Dawoud Bey.

Looking over the photographs, the viewer can feel the eerie stillness of the night. One can easily imagine the lonesome chirp of crickets, the rustling sound of nocturnal animals moving through the underbrush, and branches creaking from a gust of wind. The darkness in Bey’s scenes also conveys an ominous quality as to how the slaves may have felt moving through unfamiliar territory with the fear of getting caught. But despite the ominous tone to his work, the viewer also experiences the courage it took for fugitive slaves to seek freedom. Also, upon closer inspection, one cannot help but observe that the darkness of night can be seen not as a threat, but rather an ally that provided cover on their road to liberation.

The exhibition’s title was inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem, Dream Variations,  that ends with the couplet, “Night coming tenderly/Black like me.”

Dawoud Bey
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky), 2017. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © Dawoud Bey.

An impressive aspect of this exhibition is that although Bey’s photos create a narrative as he reimagines scenes, he doesn’t distort the vital role that this area in Ohio played in the history of the Underground Railroad. And just as importantly, Bey creates a unique balance by showcasing his artistic genius, but not letting his genius overshadow an important chapter in U.S. history.

Bey’s career as an artist began in 1975. He has had exhibitions at numerous institutions including the Brooklyn Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, NY, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His works are also in the permanent collections of over 50 museums in the United States and in Europe. Dawoud Bey was also the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant in 2017. He is currently a professor of photography at Columbia College in Chicago.

Dawoud Bey: Night Coming Tenderly, Black will be on display through April 14 at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Ave.). The museum is open daily from 10:30am to 5pm and on Thursday until 8pm. For more information, call 312-443-3600 or visit their website.

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Tom Wawzenek
Tom Wawzenek
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