“A wonderfully unnerving moment” is how Dawoud Bey responds to SFMOMA’s Curator of Photography Corey Keller’s question about what it feels like to be an actively working artist currently having a retrospective. “I’m working on a project in Lousiana, thinking of the work in front of me, work I have yet to do. Then a situation comes that demands you stop and look back, though as an artist you are looking forward. I tend not to stop, but I’m called to stop again and reflect on the past. That’s the unnerving piece.” The current exhibition showcases over eighty pieces from eight major series made over the course of more than forty years by the African American artist whose goal is to make photographs with a “real sense of interiority, to go beneath the surface.”

His first series Harlem, USA, a collection of portraits and street scenes from 1975 through '78, premiered, as is his custom, where the photos were made; in this case, the Studio Museum in Harlem. Again, engaging the people who inspire his work, Class Pictures is comprised of large scale portraits of high school students who were invited by the artist to add their own accompanying text. Harlem Redux returns to the community for large-scaled color landscapes that dramatize the changes wrought by gentrification and displacement. With the 20 X 24 Polaroids, Bey aimed to “remove the social significance of place … situating the subjects in a neutral space.” The diptychs and multiple paneled pieces lend a personal voice to each young face. 2012’s Birmingham Projects relives history, imagines the shattered futures of the bombing victims and considers how we currently engage with race, and with each other. “I had to think about how I could make something that allowed the past to resonate in contemporary time, work that showed about actions and lost possibility.”

The most recent series, Night Coming Tenderly, Black is composed of dramatic, deeply evocative portraits of place and feeling. Bey wanted to continue tracking history when asked to participate in the Cleveland Triennial and, in researching Eastern Ohio, discovered the vast role the region had played in the Underground Railroad, the path to what he calls “presumed freedom”, and “I began to imagine moving under cover of darkness. I began to explore and imagine the moment as if from the vantage of someone moving through that landscape. ” Farmhouses, trees, picket fences and Lake Erie are drenched in darkness, in velvet grays and blacks, blanketing them and the slaves in cautious cover. To reflect on the last line in Langston Hughes’s poem, “Night coming tenderly, Black like me” which Bey chose for this group, is to realize the beauty in Bey’s homage to, as well as his hope for refugees all over the globe who seek freedom today.

Dawoud Bey: An American Project shows at SFMOMA through May 25, 2020.
For events related to the exhibition, go to sfmoma.org

See more about the artist in the current Spring Issue of Juxtapoz.