NARRATOR: This series of lithographs, Runaways, began with Ligon’s study of nineteenth-century advertisements for runaway slaves, written by slave owners.

GLENN LIGON: The descriptions were quite detailed: "He laughs a lot when he talks," or, "He can play the French horn," which seem to me unnecessary if you're just describing the return of a person who is your property. And the elaborateness of those descriptions seemed to speak to a complicated relationship between master and slaveholder.

NARRATOR: Ligon asked ten friends to describe him as if they were filing a “missing persons” report. He presented their descriptions in prints seeking a run-away named Glenn. Like the slave owners, Ligon’s friends paint a picture that is both generic—he is five feet eight inches tall—and oddly idiosyncratic. When Glenn walks, for example, “his feet cross each other a little bit.”

The works are funny and disturbing. With a light touch, Ligon confronts the issue of slavery and brings it into our own time. He suggests that it remains a powerful undercurrent in American society.

Glenn Ligon (b. 1960), _Runaways_, 1993 (detail). Suite of ten lithographs. 16 x 12 in. (40.6 x 30.5 cm each). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the Peter Norton Family Foundation © Glenn Ligon; Digital Image © Whitney Museum of American Art