Throughout his long career, American artist Dawoud Bey (b. 1953) has reimagined history by bringing untold stories to the forefront of his work. Best known as a portrait photographer, Bey has lately used landscape to amplify and explore early narratives of African American experience. This exhibition features a selection of ten photographs from Bey’s 2017 series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, which centers on the Underground Railroad.
The series imagines the perspective of an escaped enslaved person traveling on a secret route in northeast Ohio as they seek freedom. Displayed in sequence, the images evoke passage through a dark tangle of marshes, woods, and picket fence–lined back yards at night, culminating in an expanse of Lake Erie that stretches to a watery horizon—a view liberating in its promise of freedom but with no sign of land in the distance.
Bey found his title in the closing refrain of Langston Hughes’s 1926 poem Dream Variations, and his series pays homage to another great Harlem-based figure, photographer Roy DeCarava, whose distinctive images of a “world shaped by blackness” inspired Bey’s own velvety dark prints. The enveloping atmosphere of his ghostly nocturnal scenes requires viewers to pause, adjust to the darkness, and imagine the emotional space once held by enslaved people struggling to navigate unfamiliar terrain in search of safety.