Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Illuminating the Intangible

The Allen Memorial Art Museum’s latest exhibit explores the Underground Railroad

December 6, 2023

Annie Zaleski

Silhouette of trees and shrubs in a wooded area presents a striking contrast to the solid, lighter background. (Black and white photograph.)
Photo credit: Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953), Night Coming Tenderly, Black: Untitled #24 (At Lake Erie), 2017. Gelatin silver print. Museum Friends Fund, 2019.17.

In late August, the Allen Memorial Art Museum opened a new exhibition in the Northwest Ambulatory space. Picturing the Intangible: Oberlin Looks at Dawoud Bey’s Night Coming Tenderly, Black features just one work: a photograph by Bey—Untitled #24 (At Lake Erie). It is part of a series exploring the Underground Railroad, its history in Northeast Ohio, and “the myth versus the reality of those places,” says Curator of Academic Programs Hannah Wirta Kinney.

The exhibition was crafted through collaborations with campus and community groups. The Oberlin Heritage Center contributed text written by a self-emancipated person who settled in Oberlin. There’s also the story of a local woman whose great-great-great-grandfather self-emancipated and a recording of the Oberlin Gospel Choir singing the spiritual “Wade in the Water.”

The photograph is complemented by the sound of Imani Joseph ’24 reading the text of Langston Hughes’ poem “Dream Variations,” from which Bey’s series takes its name. Associate Professor of Creative Writing Chanda Feldman shared insights into the text.

“We had this really great conversation where we deconstructed how to look at this poem on its own,” Feldman says. “They wanted to discuss how Hughes’ poem might resonate with Dawoud Bey as he’s creating the series and what someone like me, a poet, might see in that poem and its relationship to the photographs. Likewise, I had questions for them because I’m very interested in that series.”

The conversation included discussion of the poem’s structure, themes, and language, but also how people viewing the photograph bring their own perspectives to interpretation. “At least as I see it, one of the key relationships in the poem and in Dawoud Bey’s work is a positive interpretation of night,” Feldman notes. “[It’s] thinking about night as a protective force and not necessarily a frightening force. 

“But that photograph and Hughes’ poem both flip on its head the idea of black as something negative, right?” Feldman continues. “Night isn’t a void. There’s a palpable presence sheltered in the darkness.”

Students taking Feldman’s fall 2023 class Poetry: Travel, Mobility, and Movement will visit the exhibition and complete an assignment rooted in ekphrasis, a type of writing specifically about visual art. 

To Kinney, these varied perspectives speak to the museum’s approach. “For us, the community aspect of this is not only these different voices, but that it’s all really tied into Oberlin as a place and connecting town and gown. We are on the corner of those two worlds—of serving the broader community of Oberlin, but also the student and college population.”

Picturing the Intangible: Oberlin Looks at Dawoud Bey’s Night Coming Tenderly, Black is on display through January 21, 2024, in the Northwest Ambulatory. 

Bey will be in conversation with Oberlin professor and poet Chanda Feldman for an Allen After Hours event on Thursday, December 7, 2023, at 5:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m. The discussion will be introduced with a musical performance by the Oberlin Gospel Choir, under the direction of La Tanya Hall.

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine.


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