“History is always present.” -Dawoud Bey
Dawoud Bey: Elegy opens this Saturday, November 18, 2023 at the VMFA. This exhibition is an exploration of the experiences of African Americans in the early United States. Bey conveys immense emotion through his photographs of landscapes in three significant locations and further draws in the viewer with two film installments.
The opening series is Stony the Road (2023), a collection of 12 photographs commissioned by the VMFA. Bey’s photographs of the Richmond Slave Trail provide deep insight into the landscape and cruel uncertainty of what lay ahead for people who were forcibly marched there. This 2.5 mile trail connected the Manchester Docks and auction blocks in Shockoe Bottom. It is estimated 350,000 Africans were brutally sold into chattel slavery from this location in the decades prior to the Civil War. This number is what Bey titled the first film in the exhibit. In 350,000, Bey impactfully creates a multisensory, haunting display of the trail.
The second series of photographs is Bey’s work In Here this Place (2019) accompanied by a 3 screen video Evergreen (2021). These feature Louisiana’s Evergreen plantation, the only plantation where original slave quarters still exist. His juxtaposition of the beautiful landscapes and the bleak cabins provide a stark contrast stressing the harsh reality of enslaved peoples’ lives.
Bey concludes this powerful exhibit with Night Coming Tenderly, Black (2017) consisting of landscapes around Cleveland and Hudson, Ohio along parts of the Underground Railroad. In this display he captures the agency of the people seeking freedom as well as a sense of urgency, hope, and uncertainty through his photographic techniques.
In his remarks at the VMFA Wednesday, November 15th, Dawoud Bey reminds us that he is not a documentarian, rather Bey shared, “I try to evoke history in a resonant way that brings together the past and the present.” He stated that this exhibition represents his own subjective ideas visualized. Through radical reimagining he brings the viewer into a space that transcends time. He wants each viewer to find their own language in which to talk about their responses to this work. Bey shared his hope that this presentation would inspire conversations. He has brilliantly achieved this goal.
Humanities teachers will be interested in sharing how Dawoud Bey uses poetic images to conceptualize and transfer his ideas. Important works of literature, many of which are in high school curriculums, are woven throughout the presentation. Families will also find discussions of empathy and the human experience sparked by Bey’s approach to history. He wants us to consider the history of the spaces we inhabit and contemplate the future. Take the opportunity to experience Dawoud Bey’s exhibition at the VMFA.
A number of events are planned with Dawoud Bey: Elegy. See the list here.
$10 seniors 65+
$8 youth 7-17 and college students with ID
$2 Museum for All participants
Free for VMFA Members, active duty military, National Guard and Reserve military personnel and their immediate families
General admission to the upper VMFA Galleries is always free.
Dawoud Bey: Elegy will remain at the VMFA from November 18, 2023 – February 25, 2024
Regina Warriner is a local realtor, educator and mother of two who loves learning, reading, and building positive community connections. You can reach her by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Instagram: reginarva_realtor.