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Layers of History—Passage on the Underground Railroad

Untitled from the Passage on the Underground Railroad Series, 2005, by Stephen Marc (American, b. 1954)

Last Friday, the Gibbes opened the exhibition Stephen Marc: Passage on the Underground Railroad, featuring the digital montages of contemporary photographer Stephen Marc. The exhibition is a timely one, as it coincides with the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Any discussion of the Civil War must address slavery, and Marc’s work does so in a very powerful way.

Over the past decade, Marc has traveled throughout the United States and Canada photographing and researching sites connected with the Underground Railroad. His work conveys the stories of slaves who traveled the Underground Railroad in pursuit of freedom and those who helped them along their journey. To accomplish this, Marc conducted primary research in archives and historical societies throughout the United States. He gathered documents, artifacts, and ephemera from his research and digitally combined the material with contemporary photographs of the Underground Railroad sites. The resulting montages elegantly weave together the past and present and challenge viewers to contemplate the legacy of the Civil War today.

Viewing Marc’s exhibition requires some time, as each work contains a great deal of information. The stories of the Underground Railroad are fascinating, but also devastating. One montage in particular stops me dead in my tracks each time I walk through the gallery. It is an untitled work from 2006 that includes the figure of a woman shown from behind, her back covered with markings intended to mimic the keloid scars that resulted from whipping. But what really gets me is the illustration on the right, taken from an 1850 slave narrative autobiography. It depicts an enslaved woman being whipped while her infant is ripped from her hands. It is utterly devastating.

Stephen Marc’s work is challenging, but so is the history of the Civil War. It is my hope that this exhibition will help foster honest dialogue about all aspects of our nation’s history—both the good and the bad.

Pam Wall, Curator of Exhibitions, Gibbes Museum of Art

Stephen Marc: Passage on the Underground Railroad is on view at the Gibbes Museum of Art from April 7–July 10, 2011.

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