b.O.s. 11.1 / Untitled #17 (Forest) / Leigh Raiford

Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections. 

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.

– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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Dawoud Bey, Untitled #17 (Forest), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black: 2017, Gelatin silver print (44 x 55 inches)

The photograph is dark, layers of black and gray and more black, its subject nearly indiscernible. In fact, you probably can’t see much in the reproduction that accompanies this so you’ll just have to trust my description. A tangle of thin tree trunks populates the entirety of the photograph. They root below the bottom edge of the frame and reach above its top edge beyond our sight. The branches are mostly bare, having given up their leaves to form a blanket on the lower third of the photograph. Some leaves cling to branches, a blurry cluster in the left foreground, at the top they appear as splattered watercolor droplets, or tiny exploding black stars.  

Dawoud Bey’s Untitled #17 (Forest) is a photograph of a dense forest in late autumn. But it is so redolent with darkness that it defies the very ontology of photography–writing with light, a record of the “that has been.”1 Instead, a gelatin silver print patiently overexposed in the darkroom now ventures toward an abstractionist painting, a rendering of twisting black lines that form dark networks. It is not clear if those networks are there to impede or facilitate our movement. It is not clear that there is a path out, but when we move and sway in front of it, we find just enough light. It is dense but not impossible. I just have to trust that there is a way through.

Untitled #17 (Forest) is one of 25 images that comprises Bey’s Night Coming Tenderly, Black (NCTB). This 2018 series of large (44 x 55 inches) black and gray photographs of the outdoors in and around Cleveland, Ohio, is Bey’s rendering of “the sensory and spatial experience of fugitive slaves moving through the darkness of a pre-Civil War landscape–an enveloping darkness that was a passage to liberation.”2 Twelve of the series are featured in Bey’s retrospective show Dawoud Bey: An American Project that opened at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on February 15, 2020. But like most everything else this Spring, the show hasn’t been seen in person since the Bay Area went to shelter in place orders on March 17.  

It is strange and a bit disconcerting to think of these somnambulant images of a fulsome outdoors— photographs that demand a full body engagement to be felt and reckoned with, that visualize the limits and possibilities of freedom, and that question the very notion of shelter—hanging unseen and unfelt in the silence of the museum.3

Ostensibly, NCTB is about “the past” and Bey has reminded audiences that “the [photographic] language of history is black and white.” Black and white is also the visual telegraph of archival documention. Bey emphasizes the blackness of black and white to offer an imaginative act of visualizing the history of escape from Southern slavery that doesn’t feign verisimilitude. In its form, the series enacts the clandestine nature of the Underground Railroad, enhancing the darkness that protects the runaway from capture back into slavery; accentuating and reveling in the blackness that protects the would-be photographic subjects from overexposure and imprisonment in the camera’s luminous glare. In so doing, Bey upends the movement from the shadow to the light as the teleology of representational progress. 

NCTB carves a path through so many of the visual conundra that have troubled the terrain of Black visuality. For Bey, long known and celebrated as a portraitist, NCTB refuses “photographic capture” through its shift to landscape.4 So too does the series refuse the affirmation of the self that the genre of portraiture confers and confirms. There is no sitter in stasis, no subject either made regnant by or subjected to the sovereignty of the photograph. It is the loving, enveloping blackness of Roy DeCarava, one of Bey’s influences. It is the blackness of Glissant’s opacity. It is the blackness that Cedric Robinson, Teju Cole and Tavia Nyong’o have each reminded us we can’t even yet imagine.5  

A landscape image practically too dark to reproduce, that requires our “acute motion” to become legible (Dyson), that invites our slowed breath and listening ear to register their quiet (Campt), that references the terror of the hold and also the grace of being held (Sharpe), that enacts the tactics and strategies of dark sousveillance (Browne), that shifts our perspective from the seen to the seeing.6 Is it possible that such a photograph utterly devoid of people is as true and as intimate as the portraits that have come to define Bey’s work? 

For me the forest is a revelation, and also a cipher. In moving to landscape, Bey reminds us that Black folks both put their hands in the earth to build this nation’s wealth and were hung from trees for daring to live as though we belonged.7 So too does Bey assert the profound beauty and terror of the outdoors, and the uncertain pact fugitives made with these places as gauntlets to freedom.  

Neither past nor present, at once abstraction and figuration, both document and fiction. I can only describe Untitled #17 (Forest) as crepuscular, “of or relating to twilight.” We often think of twilight as the passage between day and night. But crepuscular names its own time, its own practices, its own knowledgeBey’s “day for night” technique orchestrates images to appear like something more than night. Untitled #17 (Forest) stages the inexorable motion of the fugitive; it is a work of art that necessitates we take this time—so dense, so thick, so dark—on its own terms.

What if we choose, in the midst of flight, to linger here for a moment? To breathe together (which is the root meaning of “conspire”)? To listen for each other and all other things living and once living and still living? What if we share this quiet and let the darkness hold us, our secrets and our dreams? Is this freedom? 

“On the bed of damp earth, her breathing slowed and that which separated herself from the swamp disappeared. She was free.

This moment.”8

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This is one of four essays from the eleventh transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s 11.2/Let Them Die Like Lovers/Mikal J. Gaines
b.O.s 11.3/Vernacular/Adedoyin Teriba
b.O.s 11.4/It’s in the Game ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection/Shelleen Greene

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Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.

Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black CinemaFlash ArtUnwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.

 

Endnotes

  1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982).
  2. Dawoud Bey, Night Coming Tenderly, Black Artist Statement.” Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco.
  3. To drop a pin, I write this in the midst of a global pandemic and a series of national uprisings. On my screens people have taken over the streets of Minneapolis, of Denver, of NYC. Oakland will join tonight. Most protesters wear masks. I wish they all would, both to mitigate the spread of the virus and to protect their identities. Right now, Black people are dying at higher rates of Covid than any other demographic and right now Black people are risking their lives protesting the murder of Black people by police and other agents of the state. This writing comes in media res; maybe when you read this you’ll know if this was a short lived explosion or the start of a long hot summer; if the state of emergency is soon to be forgotten or if this is the conjuncture, the portal, the honest to god revolution. To drop a pin, I write from inside a moment so dense, so thick, so dark, that it’s hard to know where we are or what’s ahead. All I know is that I need to keep moving, we cannot go back to the before, to the normal.
  4. Shawn Michelle Smith, “On Darkness and the Underground Railroad,” paper presented at the American Studies Association conference (Honolulu, 10.8.19)
  5. “But the more authentic question was not whether the slaves (and the ex-slaves and their descendants) were human. It was, rather, just what sort of people they were…and could be.” Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2000 [1983], 125 (elipsis in original). “But you have no idea how dark we yet may be, nor what that darkness may contain.” Teju Cole, “A True Picture of Black Skin,” in Known and Strange Things. NY: Penguin, 2016, 151.  “The proposition here, against all liberal universalisms and scientific positivities, is to insist that we do not yet know what a human outside of an anti-black world could be, do, or look like.” Tavia Nyong’o, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life. New York: NYU Press, 2019, 26.
  6. Torkwase Dyson, “Black Compositional Thought: Black Hauntology, Plantationocene, and Paradoxical Form,” in Corey Kelley and Elizabeth Sherman, editors, Dawoud Bey: Two American Projects. New Haven and London: SF MoMA and Yale University Press, 2020, 78; Tina Campt, Listening to Images. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017, and Campt, A Black Gaze. MIT Press, forthcoming; Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016; Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
  7. “…the communion between scorned flesh and scorned earth, offers another ecological ethos and view, one that moves beyond the degeneration enacted by existing maps.” J. Kameron Carter and Sarah Jane Cervenak, “The Black Outdoors: Humanities Futures After Property and Possession.” Duke University, Franklin Humanities Institute, 2016.
  8. Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad. NY: Anchor Books, 2016, 300.
Leigh Raiford
Leigh Raiford is an associate professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches and researches about race, gender, justice and visuality. She is the author of Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle; and co-editor with Heike Raphael-Hernandez of Migrating the Black Body: Visual Culture and the African Diaspora.