This group exhibition in the AGO’s Robert & Cheryl McEwen Gallery includes the work of three contemporary African American artists from three generations—Dawoud Bey (b. 1953), John Edmonds (b. 1990), and Wardell Milan (b. 1977)—who each deeply consider how photographs can relay something authentic about Black American experiences and identity. Central to their approach is the question of what photographs can, in fact, document. Can they convey the experience of a past time? Do they generalize too much? Can they be reworked to question the original context of their making? In these recent works, Bey, Edmonds, and Milan—who are all based in New York—grapple with the history of African American visual representations over time.
In his series Night Coming Tenderly, Black (2016 –17), Bey imagines the sensory experience of enslaved people moving under cover of darkness through Ohio landscapes toward freedom via the Underground Railroad. He drew his title from Langston Hughes’ 1926 poem Dream Variations, where Hughes imagined liberation for African Americans arriving not in the glare of daylight, but its opposite: “Night coming tenderly / Black like me.”
For Untitled [Du-rags] (2017), Edmonds photographs his models from behind, focusing attention on the du-rag—a head scarf—and leaving the subject’s identity unknown. By printing the image on Japanese silk, which recalls the du-rag itself, Edmonds creates an association between his model and the delicate fabric. This highlights not only the vulnerability of his subjects, but also the “thin” and harmful nature of character judgments based on dress.
Milan engages with the visual record he has inherited as a gay, Black man. In the series Parisian Landscapes (2013–19), he looks back at Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs of Black men, published as Black Book in 1986. He asks himself: Are these my ancestors? And if so, what does that mean? Milan recasts Mapplethorpe’s figures in collages, returning his gaze, rendering them newly whole.
Using a range of aesthetic strategies, these three artists address a complex history of African American representation while imagining affirming, poetic visions of Blackness.