Text and blackness have each been central to Glenn Ligon’s practice for the last three decades. For these lithographs, inspired by nineteenth-century advertisements by slave owners describing fugitive slaves, Ligon invited friends to write physical descriptions of him in the same manner they would describe him to the police. The text in Runaways mimics a typeface typical of American slave-era posters.

Runaways were first exhibited as part of Ligon’s 1993 installation To Disembark, which looked at the way black representation is affected by three seemingly disparate institutions: slavery, the art market, and the museum. Named for a book of poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks, the installation paired Runaways with large wood boxes fabricated to mimic the one that slave Henry “Box” Brown used to ship himself to freedom in Philadelphia in 1849. Ligon’s wood cubes were covered in words like “FRAGILE,” a reference to the nature of freedom itself and the crates used by museums to transport works of art.