As a photographer and curator, it’s rare that an art show moves me to tears. But that’s exactly what happened with “Joshua Rashaad McFadden: I Believe I’ll Run On,” a retrospective photography exhibition at the George Eastman Museum.
The dark walls and dim lights of the gallery space drew me in. At the entrance of the exhibit is a mirror with the words “BE REAL BLACK FOR ME.”
This imperative achieved two things — welcoming Black viewers into a museum that caters to predominantly white artists for predominantly white audiences, and challenging white viewers to shift their mindsets. It was a bold, even radical statement, asserting Black art’s rightful presence in a museum setting.
It’s also rare for an artist as young as Joshua Rashaad McFadden — he’s only 31 — to receive a retrospective so early in their career in a gallery such as George Eastman Museum, which tends to recognize artists with more extensive portfolios.
“Joshua Rashaad McFadden: I Believe I’ll Run On” is a stunning look at one of contemporary photography’s most provocative Black artists, who also happens to be a Rochester native. The exhibition is on view at the Eastman Museum through June 19.
I started following McFadden’s work during the 2020 social uprising in Rochester after the killing of Daniel Prude. I was obsessively refreshing social media pages, watching for images and videos of friends and family in the onslaught of tear gas and pepper balls from the Rochester Police Department. McFadden was on the front lines, documenting the interactions between protesters and police with live video clips and photographs, and capturing both the stunning violence and the uplifting community response.
“I had to go document that, no matter what,” McFadden said. “I had to do it.”
McFadden has a lot on his plate, creatively. He had already begun teaching at RIT when he started documenting the protests in Rochester. He’s also covered similar protests in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C.
“With doing that type of work, no, there is no sleep,” he explained. “Protests were going on all day and through the middle of the night until 4 a.m. So, (I was) going on two hours of sleep every night for that entire summer, really all the way up until this year, because the trial of Derek Chauvin happened this year in April.
“It was running on no sleep for a very, very, very long time. But the work had to be done.”
Within the genre of protest photography, McFadden’s work often captures the protestors’ unfiltered emotional responses.
For McFadden, capturing Black grief is just a small part of capturing Black life. He considers his projects individually, but admits that because the work occasionally overlaps, the images and their stories begin to inform each other.
McFadden returned to Rochester in 2018 after several years of living in Atlanta, where he taught photography at Spelman College, to accept an art residency at Visual Studies Workshop. He currently teaches at Rochester Institute of Technology.
From there, he produced “Evidence,” an exhibit that illustrates the breadth of Black masculinity and gender through portraits of men alongside those of their fathers or father figures. Concurrently, McFadden was motivated by the recent death of his grandfather and produced “Love Without Justice,” an autobiographical photo series that utilized photos from his family’s archive.
In his portraits of other people, there is a rawness and a willingness for deep self-exploration. “I think the work is very much me,” he said. “And it’s not really too glammed up or staged. Especially with the archives, it’s very personal. Especially in ‘Love Without Justice.’ I’m just adding on to the archive. So I think that it is me, for sure. Completely unfiltered.”
McFadden says his personal experience also motivates his photojournalistic work.
“With other things, like ‘Unrest in America,’ and documenting protests across the country, that’s also very personal. I do directly relate to the plight of Black Americans who experience racism in this country,” he said. “And so, going out and documenting that was very hard. And you’ll see the intense emotion of the photograph. And that’s not only because it’s an emotional moment, but you’ll see my emotion within those photographs.”
Self-exploration through chronicling Black life more broadly has been an ongoing theme of McFadden’s career.
“It always goes back to this image map of consistently referencing himself,” said K. Anthony Jones, an arts critic and collaborator with McFadden. “It becomes self-referential in that whole entire loop.”
“He explores what it means to not have a home in this place,” Jones later said.
Eastman Museum Executive Director Bruce Barnes acknowledged as much in his remarks at the opening of “I Believe I’ll Run On,” saying the exhibit “chronicles the intimacy of Black life in the United States” and was “a testament to the healing and to the protective possibilities of turning inward.”
McFadden wanted his work to evoke a visceral response, the kind of true reactions that, as he put it, were “unfiltered by the institution that they exist within.”
Museums are spaces of ritual practice, housing the objects and artifacts that are venerated by the community that supports them. McFadden’s exhibition plays to this, with lighting and colors that encourage a near-holy exaltation of the work. Watching the exhibition’s attendees engage in different ways reminded me of the difference between attending church in New York with my white mother and attending church in South Carolina with my Black father: solemn silence versus jubilant reverence.
It’s rare that we’re able to give artists their flowers when they are still working and even more exceptional when we are able to do that toward the beginning of what appears poised to be a meteoric career.
“This is only the beginning,” McFadden said. “I have so much more work to do, and so much more to say.”
Amanda Chestnut is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to [email protected]