‘Free as they want to be’ examines the legacy and aftermath of slavery

Press Release


'Free as they want to be' examines legacies of slavery and its aftermath

Exhibition opens Sept. 30 at Freedom Center, part of 2022 FotoFocus Biennial

CINCINNATI – Symbols of the past are shown in a new light as works from over 20 artists explore historic issues of unfreedom and our present reckoning with the legacy they leave behind. ‘Free as they want to be’: Artists Committed to Memory, part of the 2022 FotoFocus Biennial, opens September 30 at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The exhibition will be open through March 6, 2023.

Inspired by the words of James Baldwin, ‘Free as they want to be’ considers the historic and contemporary role photography and film have played in remembering legacies of slavery and its aftermath. The exhibition examines the social lives of Black and white Americans within the context of the land, at home, photographic albums, at historic sites and in public memory. ‘Free as they want to be’ presents an opportunity 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.

“’Free as they want to be’ powerfully captures the ongoing journey to freedom with beauty and dignity,” said Woodrow Keown, Jr., president and COO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. “It contextualizes a history and present of unfreedom in our nation alongside a determination to seize freedom rightfully due its people.”

Featured image: Catherine Opie, Untitled #4, Richmond, Virginia (monument/monumental), 2020.

The exhibition features more than 20 artists on the frontlines of the events that have shaped our world over the past several years. Working in photography, video, silkscreen, projection and mixed media installations, the artists’ works reflect defining moments of our past in the struggle for racial justice and equality. Each artist offers images that advance a different sense of empowerment, becoming an integral part of strong narratives as they commemorate endurance, longevity and accomplishment.

‘Free as they want to be’ is curated by Deborah Willis, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imagine at the Tisch School of the Arts, and Cheryl Finley, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Art History at Cornell University.

‘Free as they want to be’: Artists Committed to Memory is a curated exhibition for the 2022 FotoFocus Biennial: World Record. Now in its sixth iteration, the 2022 FotoFocus Biennial activates over 100 projects at participating venues across Greater Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, Dayton and Columbus, and features more than 600 artists, curators and participants – the largest of its kind in America. The World Record theme considers photography’s extensive record of life on Earth, humankind’s impact on the natural world and the choices we now face as a global community.

FotoFocus welcomes global artists, curators, critics, educators and regional visitors to Cincinnati with exhibitions, talks, performances, screenings and panel discussions during an expanded week of programming September 29 through October 8, 2022.


About the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center 
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in August 2004 on the banks of the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. Since then, more than 1.3 million people have visited its permanent and changing exhibits and public programs, inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom. Two million people have utilized educational resources online at freedomcenter.org, working to connect the lessons of the Underground Railroad to inform and inspire today’s global and local fight for freedom. Partnerships include Historians Against Slavery, Polaris Project, Free the Slaves, US Department of State and International Justice Mission. In 2014, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center launched a new online resource in the fight against modern slavery, endslaverynow.org.

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