Free as they want to be: Artists Committed to Memory


This book is not yet published, but will be available from December 2022.

ISBN: 9788862087803 Category:


‘Free as they want to be’: Artists Committed to Memory is the companion publication to the FotoFocus biennial exhibition that is scheduled for Fall 2022 and will run at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center until Spring 2023. This project considers the historic and contemporary role that photography and film have played in remembering legacies of slavery and its aftermath while examining the social lives of Black Americans within various places including the land, at home, in photographic albums, at historic sites, and in public memory.

This exhibition acknowledges artists’ constant involvement with efforts to explore the possibilities of freedom and their relationship to it. Their quest to be ‘as free as they want to be’ is envisioned in the subject matter they explore as well as in their persistent drive to innovate aesthetic practices in photographic media. The publication presents some 20 artists working in photography, video, silkscreen, projection, and mixed media installation.

Free as they want to be is inspired by the words of James Baldwin and the timely theme of FotoFocus, World Record, as well as events of late that have shaped the world as we know it. The artists selected for this publication are on the frontlines, creating, documenting, and writing. The works they have conceived reflect defining moments in the struggle for racial justice and equality.

Free as they want to be presents an occasion to reflect upon the past, to mark significant defining moments – both triumphs and tragedies – that characterize a people and their experiences in the present – and to propose future possibilities. The artists offer images that advance a different sense of empowerment. Their images thus play an integral part in casting resilient narratives as they commemorate endurance, longevity, and accomplishment.

The timing of a publication like this could not be more urgent given the human toll of the pandemic, widening economic disparities, the threat of war, voting rights, global migration crises, and quotidian violence.

Proposed Artists: Terry Adkins; Radcliffe Bailey; J.P. Ball Studio; Sadie Barnett; Dawoud Bey; Sheila Pree Bright; Bisa Butler; Omar Victor Diop; Nona Faustine; Adama Delphine Fawundu; Daesha Devon Harris; Isaac Julien; Cathy Opie; Hank Willis Thomas; Lava Thomas; Carrie Mae Weems; Wendel White; William Earle Williams; anonymous tintype photographer – photo album

Additional information

Weight 300 g
Dimensions 20.3 x 20.3 cm
Publisher name Damiani Editore
Publication date 13 December 2022
Number of pages 176
Format Hardback
Contributors Edited by Deborah Willis and Cheryl Finley
Dimensions 20.3 x 20.3 cm
Weight 300 g


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Cheryl Finley, PhD, is Director of the Atlanta University Center Art History + Curatorial Studies Collective and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Art History at Spelman College. Committed to engaging strategic partners to transform the art and culture industry, she leads an innovative undergraduate program at the world's largest HBCU consortium in preparing the next generation of African American museum and visual arts professionals. She is a curator, contemporary art critic and award-winning author noted for Committed to Memory: The Art of the Slave Ship Icon (Princeton UP, 2018), the first in depth study of the most famous image associated with the memory of slavery - a schematic engraving of a packed slave ship hold - and the art, architecture, poetry, and film it has inspired since its creation in Britain in 1788. At Cornell University, where she is Associate Professor of Art History, Dr. Finley's current book project, Black Art Futures, offers a roadmap of the global art economy, focusing on the relationship among artists, museums, biennials, and migration.

Curator and photographer Deborah Willis, PhD is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She is the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. She is the author of The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship (NYU Press, 20221) and Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (W.W. Norton, 2009), among others. Professor Willis's curated exhibitions include: "Framing Moments in the Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts", "Migrations and Meanings in Art", "Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits" and "Out of Fashion Photography", among others.