The Question of Answerability in Dawoud Bey's Night Coming Tenderly, Black and The Birmingham Project
thesisposted on 01.12.2019, 00:00 by Isabelle Martin
Dawoud Bey’s 2018 series Night Coming Tenderly, Black is comprised of photographs of spaces along the portion of the Underground Railroad that routed through Ohio. Captured in the daylight but manipulated to take on the appearance of night, the photographs aim to communicate the experiences of slaves as they journeyed toward freedom in the shadows of night. Entirely absent of subjects, the photographs instead invite the viewer to inhabit their landscapes and empathize with fugitive slaves in their experiences of navigating the Underground Railroad under cover of night, seeking to escape enslavement. Bey’s 2013 series The Birmingham Project, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, presents portraits of Birmingham residents paired into diptychs, establishing a balance between individuality and collectivity and foregrounding the issues of accountability and justice. In their refusal of disavowal and their evocation of the feeling of sobriety, these photographs are thus predicated upon rational thought and incitement to action. Engaging with aesthetic theory, psychology, film and photography criticism, and political philosophy and theory, this thesis attends to the political feelings and emotional responses that each series invites in its viewers. Through a comparison of the two photographic projects, it argues that while Night Coming Tenderly, Black might be understood to cultivate a sense of fugitivity and disavowal through its invocation of empathy, the photographs of The Birmingham Project are premised on appeals to collective action, universality, and justice. By questioning answerability, and thus interrogating how works of art politically and socially implicate their viewers, this thesis examines the ways in which these two series either invite viewers to deeply consider their place within the issue of collective political action, or else evade it altogether.