Free as They Want to Be: Artists Committed to Memory | National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati

BY Glen Helfand, November 1, 2022

With a title borrowed from James Baldwin, As free as they want to be is co-curated by Cheryl Finley and Deborah Willis for the 2022 FotoFocus Biennial, a wide-ranging group of photo-based exhibitions and events in Cincinnati, Ohio. In the 19th century, Ohio was a “free state” (where slavery was prohibited), but freedom, like history, is complicated.

Finley and Willis, both academics, come to the project inspired by archival materials. For Finley, it is an anonymous album of 50 tintype portraits of Black Americans, while Willis draws on extensive research into James Presley Ball, a 19th-century portrait photographer and Daguerrean who photographed Black individuals for a time in Cincinnati. Ball’s vernacular photographs are a visual and conceptual touchstone for the included works. Among the Ball images is an 1860s portrait of Frederick Douglass, widely known as the most photographed man of the 19th century. His belief in the power of representation echoes strongly: At least three other artists in the show – Bisa Butler, Omar Victor Diop, and Isaac Julien – create direct likenesses of Douglass, rendered in a quilted piece and in staged photographic forms, as a means of considering his import.

Daesha Devón Harris, Don’t you let nobody turn you around, One More River to Cross, 2017. ©Daesha Devón Harris. Courtesy of the artist

All the works in the show are dialogues with history. Among the standouts are Wendel White’s series Manifest, 2012-ongoing, color images of photographs and objects related to Black citizens that have been collected by various institutions and stored in archives – boxes of the FBI files on Malcolm X, a curious yellow object in a specimen jar (Intestine, Male, African Descent 1849 Cholera, Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 2019/2020), a shard of stained glass from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963. All are charged elements, photographed directly, with edges subtly out of focus, against a black backdrop – artfully forensic. Adama Delphine Fawundu, in her series Face of History, overlays an image of herself, a Black woman, photographed from behind, onto images of historical documents – newspapers, congressional records, and an advertisement for the Black Star Line, Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa initiative, creating a dynamic sense of past and present: Is the figure looking back or to the future? Daesha Devón Harris’s video installation, I want to cross over (I love these words. . . Liberty, Justice, Freedom), 2016, underwater footage of legs traversing a low river, brings calm to the act of crossing over complex ground set by slave narratives and Black folklore.

The show is on view through March 6, 2023, at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, an expansive institution described on its website as “a museum of conscience,” which concentrates on historical objects and narratives related to slavery, abolitionism, and social justice. There’s a lot to see here besides art. Free, then, takes on added resonance because of its proximity to more educational exhibits in the building. The artworks rooted in, and inspired by, materials and people of the past, function as a poetic extension of the dialogues featured elsewhere in the building. Together, they traverse a formidable amount of territory—difficult American histories and truths, and art’s ability to grapple with them.