Joe Lewis, “Freightliner – Freightliner,” ( 2019) dye-sublimation and embroidery on linen 24 × 24 inches (all images courtesy the author for Hyperallergic)

The key that deciphers  Joe Lewis’s Freightliner on the Underground Railroad exhibition at James Fuentes gallery is something I hadn’t previously known about the system of secret passages and safe houses primarily used by Black people to escape slavery during the 19th century: The network ran as far south as Texas and into Mexico (which had abolished slavery in 1829). According to the show’s press release, written by Lewis, “The Underground Railroad … allowed runaway slaves and Indigenous peoples into [Mexico], refusing to send either group back … and protecting them from slave hunters.”

Joe Lewis, “Catapult – Catapulta,” (2019) dye-sublimation and embroidery on linen 24 × 24 inches

What spurred Lewis to make this work was a chance discovery made by reading press about US customs and border agents using x-rays to examine trucks and shipping vessels. The associated images of people packed in holds reminded him of images of Africans massed together in slave ships. All the works here consist of linen subjected to an industrial process used in large scale fabric manufacturing (dye sublimation) alluding to, as Lewis says, “undocumented workers and sweatshop labor.” (All titles are listed in English and Spanish.) Lewis plies the idea of moving human bodies regarded as contraband via the surveillance network of the state through several scenarios: the US war machine, human trafficking, unauthorized immigration, and escape.

Joe Lewis, “Signs – Señales, (2019) dye-sublimation and embroidery on linen 14 × 24 1/2 inches (35.56 × 62.23 cm)
(Codes, left to right) Tumbling Blocks: Your escape will happening soon; Log Cabin: you’ve reached a safe house; Drunkard’s Path: Slave Hunters are near; North Star: Look to the skies to help you navigate the way; Bow Ties: To disguise yourself as a freed slave – you’ll need a change of clothes

The images haunt me. One, “Catapult – Catapulta” (2019), depicts a human form hurtling through the air at a height that signals a disastrous landing. I ask myself what impels someone to take this kind of risk. Of course I already know. Then there is “Signs – Señales” (2019) where a passage composed of graphic symbols lies between a seemingly free Black man walking with a blanket stick and one who is shackled, suggesting that the pathway to freedom requires an ability to interpret such symbols. Those fleeing slavery needed to. Safe houses were a refuge only for those who knew the codes.

Freightliner on the Underground Railroad continues at James Fuentes gallery (55 Delancey Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 15. The show is open to the public by appointment with social distancing rules in place.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...