In April, Devin Allen walked the streets of Baltimore with protesters mourning the loss of Freddie Gray and speaking out against police brutality, and posted his stark, observational photos to his Instagram. Allen delivered honest portrayals of the Baltimore Uprising in real time and eventually garnered attention around the world. Everyone from celebrities like Rihanna to activists like Deray McKesson posted his photos to social media, which led to his work going viral, eventually landing one of his photos on the cover of Time magazine. That photo is one of many that is part of Allen's first solo photography exhibit, "Awakenings, In A New Light" at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.
The iconic image that made the cover of Time was notable for how it seemed to capture the chaos of that Saturday in Baltimore and the uprising as a whole, but it is also a brilliantly conceived photo. The Camden Street sign and Orioles banners on the light poles gives you a clear sense of its location, even for those whose knowledge of Baltimore is superficial. And for those who are aware of the city and what downtown and the Inner Harbor represent—namely "white Baltimore" in all its tourist-courting glory—the photo is even more loaded. And then there's Allen's decision to focus on the police charging, which throws the man running out of focus and gives a sense of motion although he's frozen in mid-stride. There, the photo becomes iconic and a universal idea is represented in a single frame—the fear black men, women, and children have of being terrorized by the police. Across from this photo in the exhibit is one of a young boy sporting a police hat in the middle of the uprising, an image that captures Baltimore during the uprising, when it seemed as though everything was flipped upside-down. Here, we have a young black boy—who we might otherwise assume is a target of police—wearing the garb of a police officer.
Smaller images along the walls fill in gaps that the national media seemed to have left in the narrative: Many people were under the impression tarnished houses were a result of the uprising, but here's a wide-angle image from Allen of people along a block of boarded-up homes highlighting the long tradition of urban blight, the result of Baltimore's apartheid policies, in stark contrast to O's-and-Bohs imagery floated by those in charge. A photo of a black policeman with tears welling in his eyes highlights the internal conflict of being black and wearing the badge. Other images of a black person pouring milk on a white man's face, or of a black policewoman positively interacting with kids, show hope in times of despair, beauty in the struggle, and the power, compassion, and resilience black people exhibit on a daily basis.
The community space that houses the exhibit has a familial atmosphere. Chalkboards give viewers a chance to reflect on the uprising as well, bolstering the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. "Speak the truth and love will follow," "Love thy neighbor," "#Blackparadigmsmatter," and "group economics" written in chalk show that art can be interpreted in many different ways. During the opening event, attendees discussed not only the photographs and Allen's technical skill, but also the conditions that gave rise to each photograph. The exhibit served as a reminder that subjugation and oppression are still multifaceted and pervasive in the black community. Nina Simone's 1967 recording of 'I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free' and Public Enemy's 'Fight the Power' along with Kendrick Lamar's recent anthem 'Alright' played as people of all ages flowed back and forth from the community space to the theater on the second floor.
There, a panel discussion featuring activists Malacka Reed, Deray McKesson, and Kwame Rose generated discourse about the complexities of how systematic oppression manifests itself in the black community. "The Wire's" Sonja Sohn sat in the front row and a similarly minded "The Wire" reunion panel and performance occurred the next weekend at the Lyric as part of Artscape. At one point, Allen made it a point to emphasize the need to inspire the next generation of photographers and truth tellers and legendary photographer Robert Houston said this of Allen's duty to Baltimore: "It is better to be a big fish in a little pond, than a little fish in an ocean."
In other words, the city needs Devin Allen and Allen needs the city.
Devin Allen's "Awakenings, In A New Light" runs through Dec. 7 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum.