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Teju Cole Debuts First Major Curatorial Project At Chicago Art Museum

The author, photographer and Harvard professor’s exhibit is a discussion about freedom — and the chaos and mayhem that can accompany it.

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Author, photographer and Harvard University professor Teju Cole curated the “Go Down Moses” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago.

Arionne Nettles

A new art exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago uses photography to make statements about freedom — and the chaos and mayhem that can accompany it.

“Go Down Moses,” named after the negro spiritual, is the first major curatorial project of acclaimed author, photographer and Harvard University professor Teju Cole. During his four years as a photography critic at The New York Times Magazine, Cole said he looked at images almost every day — evaluating their place in societal discussion.

Now, Cole has the opportunity to expand that work on a larger scale with more than 150 photographs that he’s curated from the museum and archives for the project.

The project is named after the song “Go Down Moses” because — like other spirituals — it’s well-known for its place in black history and as a musical representation of a longing for freedom. Cole said he used the song and the feeling it evokes as inspiration, but noted that the exhibit is representative of contemporary America as a whole.

“Though this exhibition is not about African American history, it certainly foregrounds it,” Cole said. “There’s a lot of black presence in the show because I’m a big believer in what blackness has to teach America.”

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Melissa Ann Pinney, &quotSelan’s Beauty School,” 1988

Melissa Ann Pinney

“Argument in images”

The photographs — and their placement — progress in intensity as visitors walk through the three-floor exhibit. The start of the exhibit is minimalist with open spaces; the end is a cluster of images showing extreme conditions. This emotion-evoking sequence is intentional, Cole said, and is another means of discussion.

“The way we argue in writing is different from the way we can argue in images,” Cole said. “This was a kind of argument in images that said something about the tenderness and vulnerability of human beings, how we look for help in our groups, and yet, how subject we are to huge forces beyond our control.”

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Spaced out photographs line the walls of the second floor of the three-floor exhibit.

Arionne Nettles

The final image in the sequence is by the famed photographer Roy DeCarava — so striking, dark and dramatic that it requires the viewer to “stop and wait and think” as they look closely see what’s in the photograph, Cole said.

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The exhibit’s intense photos are displayed on the third floor in a tight cluster on the wall.

Arionne Nettles

“I want that to be the final feeling that people have in this exhibition that they’ve been through all these pictures, and finally, they are in a thoughtful space,” he said. “Because I think that’s a wonderful contrast to a kind of current thoughtlessness in our public life where everything’s kind of noisy and exaggerated, and to just have that moment of interiority is I think a real gift.”

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The final photograph, by photographer Roy DeCarava, centers a dark wall at the very end of the exhibit on the third floor. The striking photograph is so dark that it requires visitors to stop and look closely to view it.

Arionne Nettles

The exhibit opens runs through Sept. 29, and Cole will return for a public lecture on photography on Sept. 26.

Arionne Nettles is a digital producer at WBEZ covering arts and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @arionnenettles.

Correction: The image by Melissa Ann Pinney is titled “Selan’s Beauty School” and was created in 1988.

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