Collection Spotlight: Untitled #17 (Forest), Dawoud Bey

Title: Untitled #17 (Forest) from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black
Artist: Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953)
Date:  2017
Medium:  Gelatin silver print
Edition: Edition of 6
Dimensions: 44 x 55 in.
Credit Line: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, purchase funds provided by Susan and Richard Rieser

Dawoud Bey’s series Night Coming Tenderly, Black is a photographic meditation on history, myth and place, which bridges the antebellum and the contemporary era. The project engages with the history of the Underground Railroad that enabled fugitive slaves to escape into freedom in the free states and Canada in the early- to mid-19th century. Initially set up at the Front International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art in 2017, Bey’s production and exhibition of the work are site-specific, first installed at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Ohio, a former stop on the Underground Railroad known as “Station Hope.” Bey, who has focused on documenting urban black life for most of his career, approached the rural areas around Cleveland and Lake Eerie as both historical and imagined landscapes.

Little visual evidence remains from the antebellum network of secret safe houses and routes, and parts of the area have been subject to major urbanization and transformation. Drawing on a history of landscape painting and photography, Bey revisits these historical sites, and creates atmospheric allusions to experiences that too often have been left out in accounts of American history. At the same time, Bey’s images also generate complex readings from a contemporary perspective. The co-presence of these different temporal layers inherent in the places that Bey depicts speak to the complexities of history itself, especially of a history charged with secrecy and oppression. Night Coming Tenderly, Black documents the undocumented and subtly urges us to integrate it into a collective, contemporary consciousness.

The series title refers to Langston Hughes’s poem “Dream Variations” (1926), which voices an African-American worker’s yearning for freedom. This liberation would occur not in the glare of daylight, but in the protection and stillness of night. Hughes and Bey invert a dominant literary association of darkness and blackness with danger into one of hope and transcendence. Hughes’s poem calls for a “Night coming tenderly/Black like me”—a vision of a future where the struggle for racial equality and justice is over. Aside from Hughes, Bey also engages in a material conversation with photographer Roy DeCarava, in whose work the black subject often emerges out of the darkness of the photographic print.

Untitled #17 (Forest) shows a dense forest from a perspective within the brush. It evokes a sense of claustrophobia, as well as stillness, calm, and protection. A faint light shimmers through the trees like a metaphorical promise of freedom on the other side of the covert. Only by reading it through the historical context of the Underground Railroad does the image transmit an atmosphere of immediacy, intimacy, and promise. It expresses both a micro-perspective of an individual’s flight and a much larger story of struggle. Like blackness in Hughes’ writing, the darkness in Bey’s image presents a protective cover, rather than a threat. The dense array of the bare trees form a barrier the fugitives need to cross, but at the same time hide them from their oppressors. And the night emerges as a site of black agency and resistance.

While the historical context of Night Coming Tenderly, Black provokes these (re-)readings of darkness and night in the overall series, its individual images are presented with minimal information, such as in our own Untitled #17 (Forest), and remain ambiguous in tone. Similarly, Untitled #2 (Trees and Farmhouse) and Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky) if seen out of context, resist any one-sided interpretations. We cannot be certain whether the farmhouse is a friendly or hostile site, and Lake Eerie—a mostly calm but enormous body of water—promises both danger and escape. These subtle ambiguities in Bey’s series gesture towards the ways in which history and historic sites are inscribed with very different meanings, depending on who gets to see, write, experience, and hear them.

Dawoud Bey began his artistic career in 1975 with a series of photographs of the streets of Harlem, New York, where he grew up, and had his first solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979. Since then, he has contributed to exhibitions worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, NY, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. His works are included in the permanent collections of over fifty museums across the United States and Europe.

— Contributed by Evelyn Kreutzer, Block Museum of Art Interdisciplinary Fellow 2018-19


Artist statement, Rena Bransten Gallery website, accessed October 31, 2018.

Berger, Maurice, “Escaping to Freedom, in the Shadows of the Night.” The New York Times, July 5, 2018. Accessed December 3, 2018. Danto, Arthur C., “Dawoud Bey’s Harlem.” Aperture, No. 189 (Winter 2007), pp. 68-75.

FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. Press Release. Accessed December 3, 2018.

“Dawoud Bey: Night Coming Tenderly, Black”. Exhibition Promotion. The Art Institute of Chicago website, accessed July 18.

Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences

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