“Go Down Moses,” on view at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, explores ways freedom has been defined, from the past to the present. The title is an homage to the old Negro spiritual used by Harriet Tubman that serves as a connection for African-Americans’ longstanding quest and journey for freedom.
The exhibition displays 150 photographs from the museum’s permanent collection; the arrangement through the three floors progresses in intensity. On the first floor, the photographs are placed with vast space in between; by the end of the exhibition, they are clustered together.
With the majority of works by African-American photographers, we see how blackness can represent the contemporary American experience as a whole. The candidness of the work forces the viewer to take closer-than-normal looks. Many images abandon the portrait mode that was often associated with nineteenth-century photography and instead plays up gestures. The association of portraiture with whiteness is evident throughout history, as portrait-making was usually reserved for subjects at a level of cultural “importance.” Their value during the Baroque and Rococo periods, where primarily white subjects were rendered as art, is inevitably a part of our visual historical context.
In “Selan’s Beauty School, 1988,” by Melissa Ann Pinney, an African-American woman gets her hair washed. Her identity may rest in how her hair looks, yet there is no hairdresser pictured. The tension in the back of her neck speaks to the tension in how we want to identify ourselves. The woman consents to spending ample, not entirely enjoyable time in the salon because she understands the process is part of how she identifies herself. Intuitively, as Pinney examines the establishment of the female identity, she must in some capacity examine herself and her own identity. Creating one’s identity is a form of liberating oneself, or whom one wants to be.
More often than not, we take for granted the soil under our feet and the strides that we take. Christian Patterson’s “24th Street Road (Road at Night)” (2007), forces us to choose between accepting what we see as a fact, or questioning everything. A sandy trail extends beyond the four corners of the photograph, with tire marks throughout the trail. The light is fading. The emptiness forces us to search for deeper meaning past the sandy road. Do these thoughts constrain us to a question that does not have an answer or do we become liberated with knowledge of the unknown?
While simply depicting a man in a window, Roy DeCarava’s “Man in Window, New York” is highly emotional. It features a young African-American man in his bedroom in New York City; he sits in solitude staring off to an unseen area, with sweat glistening on his chest. The darkness translates into a whisper, drawing the viewer closer to the stillness of the scene, and creating curiosity in the lack of movement, emotion or context. The light surrounding the man becomes a source of curiosity—where is it coming from, and what exists beyond this stillness and darkness presented to us? You either dwell in the darkness of “Man in the Window,” or you interact with the unseen elements.
While many think of the word “journey” as forward-moving, “Go Down Moses” forces the viewer to understand their own journey and dive deeper into their psyche. It leaves you questioning how you got to where you are today, who helped you get there and where are you going. The exhibition allows for a release of questions that will have an impact on our journey throughout our lives. (Caira Moreira-Brown)
“Go Down Moses,” Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 South Michigan, through September 29