Go with Dawoud Bey as He Retraces the Steps of Escaped Slaves

A new exhibit at SFMOMA features Bey’s career as an artist.

From the beginning of his photographic work in the 1970s, when Dawoud Bey spent time with Harlem residents in their neighborhood spaces, to his more recent work when Bey hiked through the same Ohio pathways that escaped slaves once traipsed, Bey has undertaken projects that bring him face to face with the unknown.

The Harlem residents were unknown photographically — at least in mainstream art circles, which generally ignored the African-American barbers, mothers, students, and others who bonded with Bey during his early pursuit of photography. And the exact routes of freedom-seeking slaves in Ohio are still unknown — leading Bey to make moody, atmospheric photos of scenes that suggest scenes that runaway African-American slaves beheld on their route to Canada and an unknown future.

SFMOMA’s retrospective of Bey’s career, “Dawoud Bey: An American Project,” situates Bey’s photographs into the tradition of U.S. photographers like Robert Frank and Walker Evans, whose photographic projects revealed a different side of America — a side that was there all along but required someone who was curious, inspired, and bold enough to dispel traditional approaches to the medium. In Bey’s case, that means exploring the lives and histories of black America or other subjects that are underrepresented in popular media. People often look straight into Bey’s camera and, by extension, at the museum-goers. But even in a project like “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” — Ohio scenes that evoke 19th-century slave routes and the American Antebellum — Bey’s camera reveals sights (and sites) that stare back at us. Bey tells SF Weekly that “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” is at its core an “imagining” of places that have special significance — and that, at one point, gave him the feeling he’d found an exact spot where fleeing slaves had once been.

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“The project is not a documentation of Underground Railroad sites, since of necessity those sites and locations were never known,” Bey says in an email interview. “Rather, they are an imagining of the path taken by an escaped slave making their way through the Northeastern Ohio landscape towards Lake Erie and then on to freedom in Canada. Starting with the few known Underground Railroad stations that I was able to research, I photographed the landscape in proximity to those locations, trying to look at them as different kinds of terrains to be negotiated in making an escape under cover of darkness. So the photographs are an act of informed imagination. The only time I did feel an actual palpable presence was when I was standing on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie. The clear sense of presence suggested to me that unlike the other sites where I had been photographing, this was an actual site.”

Bey, a Queens, New York native who was named a MacArthur “Genius” fellow in 2017, has a Master of Fine Arts from Yale and is professor of art at Columbia College Chicago. SFMOMA is calling the exhibit Bey’s “first full career retrospective in 25 years,” though it’s Bey’s third retrospective in that period. (The first was in 1995 by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the second was in 2012, organized by The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago.) SFMOMA co-organized the exhibit with New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and it will travel there and also Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.

“Retrospectives are totally unnerving affairs,” Bey tells SF Weekly. “It kind of demands that you stop and look back at a moment when all you probably want to do is to focus on the work in front of you, the work you are doing now. It’s a ‘taking stock’ moment while you’re still in the midst of producing work. And when it’s a traveling retrospective like this one is, you have the opportunity to be pulled back each time it opens at another museum. So it’s unsettling.”

But, he adds, that unsettling is balanced by his deep connection to SFMOMA and San Francisco. 

“At the same time,” he says, “it’s what an artist hopes for: to have an opportunity to have the broad sweep of your work presented in a way that the development of your ideas and work is given serious consideration and display. SFMOMA is one of my favorite museums… So I’m thrilled that my work will now occupy that space.”

“Dawoud Bey: An American Project,” Feb. 15-May 25 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., sfmoma.org

Five Other Exhibits We’re Excited About This Winter

“Stefan Kürten: True Colors”

Feb. 1-March 14 at Hosfelt Gallery

The beautiful, nature-surrounded homes in Stefan Kürten’s paintings are to die for, but they can also seem void of life — a clash of opposites that makes his works worth seeing up close.


Feb. 7-May 2 at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts

Actress Tilda Swinton, who portrayed the gender-bending protagonist of the 1992 film Orlando — which was an adaption of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel — now curates a series of photos related to gender and the book’s other central themes.

“Levi Strauss: A History of American Style”

Feb. 13-Aug. 9 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Blue jeans were born in San Francisco in the early 1870s, and Levi Strauss — both the man who co-invented them, and the company he formed — gets the full exhibition treatment.

“Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI”

Feb. 22-Oct. 25 at the de Young Museum

Artificial Intelligence is the elephant in the cultural room, and this exhibit will highlight contemporary art that deconstructs AI’s reach into everyone’s daily life.

“Art for Human Rights: Peace Now!”

Feb. 26-July 12 at BAMPFA

At the center of Berkeley political protests in the late ’60s and early ’70s were loud voices and loud posters. This exhibit highlights those posters, including anti-war posters from impassioned students, faculty, and staff at UC Berkeley.

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