“Night Coming Tenderly, Black” Reimagines the Passage of Slaves to Freedom Through the Underground Railroad
To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.
— Langston Hughes
It is supremely fitting that the last few lines of celebrated Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ poem “Dreams” provides the inspiration for the title of “Night Coming Tenderly, Black,” a body of work of profound significance by renowned Chicago-based photographer Dawoud Bey.
Now on view at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, an exhibition of selections from the series, on loan from the collection of longtime Kansas City art patrons Bill and Christy Gautreaux, finds its roots in a viewing of the couple’s collection by Kemper assistant curator Jade Powers in the summer of 2019. The Gautreauxs are routinely listed among America’s top 200 collectors.
“I saw these new Bey photographs — a recent acquisition — and knew they would make an impactful exhibition,” Powers said in a recent email. “It simultaneously highlights the strength of contemporary art collecting in Kansas City and presents the most recent series of works by Bey, one of the most celebrated American photographers working today.
“I had also just returned from the National Alliance of African American Art conference in Detroit, Michigan, where I was able to meet Bey, view a selection of his works in person at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and hear him speak about this project, which of course further excited me about the prospect of bringing this work to Kemper Museum,” she added.
The “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” works are landscapes, a departure from Bey’s usual subject matter of portraits. An MFA Yale alumnus, Bey began his career in 1975 with a celebrated series of photographs titled “Harlem, USA.” For the next 40 years, he exhibited his portraits throughout the United States and Europe, establishing himself as one of the preeminent photographers in the world.
Along the way, Bey, a professor of photography and Distinguished College Artist at Columbia College in Chicago, has earned prestigious awards for his work, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His work has been exhibited at galleries and universities including the Mary Boone Gallery, the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
In “Night Coming Tenderly, Black,” Bey visually reimagines the passage of slaves to freedom in Canada through the Underground Railroad. Some of the sites chosen are actual stops on the Underground Railroad while some are thought to be possible sites.
The dusky photographs capture what these slaves may have seen as they travelled at night, quietly, hopeful for eventual freedom but ever so cognizant of the harsh cost of failure. They are intimate, yet elusive. They are bold, yet muted. These photographs present to us the stories of courageous souls fighting for their very freedom. However, they require work to digest. They force us to think.
In an era of 4K, CGI and high dynamic range, the subdued visuals of these images are sobering, somewhat calming, engaging, but also stand as stark reminders of a dark history that we seemingly cannot escape. In these works, Bey challenges us with tender visual aesthetics. They embody “Night Coming Tenderly, Black.”
Powers is thrilled about this exhibit and the opportunity it offers museum visitors “to learn more about the artwork of Bey and important creatives, namely, (Roy) DeCarava and (Langston) Hughes, who are major influences in Bey’s series.”
She is optimistic that Bey’s work will speak and have an impact that is sorely needed in American culture today: “I hope this exhibition will bring forth dialogue about American slavery and its continued impact,” she said. “Bey says this project ‘hold(s) darkness itself in a tender embrace,’ and I’d like for visitors to see and experience a soft and tender memorial to a traumatic time in American history, reinforcing the humanity of all former enslaved people.”
Overlapping in time with the Bey exhibit is a commissioned Atrium Project by Joiri Minaya. Minaya’s work will focus on the historic significance of Quindaro district in Kansas City, Kansas, as a town and safe haven for travelers on the Underground Railroad.
“Both of these exhibitions draw the significance and meanings of freedom in America to the forefront, educating visitors on the importance of Missouri and Kansas geography in the larger scope of this discussion in American history,” Powers said.
“Dawoud Bey: Selections from Night Coming Tenderly Black” continues at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd., through March 7, 2021. New hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Masks required; entry is by free timed-entry ticket only. Enter through the west side entrance. For more information, 816.753.5784 or www.kemperart.org.
Above: “Untitled #14 (Site of John Brown’s Tannery)” (2017) by Dawoud Bey, a gelatin silver print from the artist’s “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” series of landscapes inspired by the Underground Railroad (Collection of Christy and Bill Gautreaux, Kansas City, Missouri. Art and photo ©Dawoud Bey; courtesy Rena Bransten Gallery).