Art, Politics & Society

Dawoud Bey: African American History – Past & Present


Fig. 1: Routes of the Underground Railroad, 1830-1865. Compiled from  "The... | Oxford Research Encyclopedias
Routes of the Underground Railroad, 1830-1865 
“History is what I am most preoccupied with within my work. How can someone reimagine and visualize African American history – make that history rising in the contemporary mind” – Dawoud Bey (2020)

Starting his career as a photographer in 1975 with his first series entitled Harlem, U.S.A., Dawoud Bey presents a highly intimate oeuvre. The artist aims to make the invisible visible by portraying history as a palpable, almost tangible matter which resonates with audiences from all over the world like a silent shockwave. 

Let’s go back to two of his main pieces of works, The Birmingham Project Night Coming Tenderly Black, to get a better look at the artist’s powerful account of history and its visualization. 

Aimed for a transformative experience, the work of Dawoud Bey looks back at the United States' history through the everyday life of the communities he investigates. Bey pays particular attention to the inevitable obstacles of an unsettled past and its relation to the present by engaging his subjects through the passage of time. 

This is one of the most profound strengths of The Birmingham Project enquiring through portraiture the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptists Church by white supremacists. As a commemoration for its 50th anniversary, Dawoud Bey crafted a series of diptychs associating both children’s portraits the age of the four girls and two boys killed in the bombing, next to the portrait of adults aged as they would have been today if they had not been killed. 

In addition to making them ‘real’, Bey also illustrates the idea of possibilities and forgotten intimate historical violence. In the words of Maurice Berger for the New York Times, Bey transforms the “epochal story into a flesh and blood reality… through images of contemporary Americans who are no different from us”.

“The camera for me became a way of having a voice in the world” - Dawoud Bey (2019)

Not only providing a portrait of everyday life to look back to the country’s history, Bey also reshapes the experience of the world to reframe the dominant narrative and triggers the viewer’s senses. In the project Night Coming Tenderly, Black, the artist goes beyond the human subject to inscribe the latter in the landscapes that shape the body and the soul. Here, the photographer imagines the struggles of escaped enslaved Africans by looking at buildings and places that could have been on their way to freedom as part of the invisible Underground Railroad Track. The aim however was not to highlight the steps of passing slaves in its literal meaning but rather to suggest the sensory and spatial experience of that movement. This resulted in a series of 25 large-scale photographs made around Cleveland and Hudson, Ohio - merging grandeur and mystery, darkness and hope.

Recipient of the fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, Dawoud Bey appears to this day as a visual chronicler of African American History through the power of Fine Arts. While the museums remain closed, his works are available in the recollection of his work Seeing DeeplyHarlem, U.S.A.,and The Photography Workshop Series. 

Dawoud Bey | The Birmingham Project: Trentin Williams and Willie Robinson  (2012) | Available for Sale | Artsy
Dawoud Bey, all rights reserved Trentin Williams and Willie Robinson.

Dawoud Bey brings viewers on an evocative journey along the Underground  Railroad | The Art Newspaper
Dawoud Bey – Untitled #2 (Trees and Farmhouse),from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017


Contributor’s tips:

WilliamAnderson (2021). ‘Looking back: Dawoud Bey engages history’, British Journal ofPhotography.

MauriceBerger (2013). ‘Reimagining a Tragedy, 50 Years Later’, The New York Times.

LaurettaCharlton (2020). ‘Dawoud Bey’, The New York Times.

Dawoud Bey (2018). ‘Seeing Deeply

Dawoud Bey (2012). ‘Harlem, U.S.A.

Dawoud Bey (2019). ‘The Photography Workshop Series’,

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2020). ‘Dawoud Bey on visualizing history’ (video)

Get Our Monthly Newsletter, Directly Into Your Inbox!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form