Searching back: Dawoud Bey engages history

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In his first retrospective in 25 years, Dawoud Bey engages with African American background: reimaging and visualising facets of a persecuted past that extends to the present

Born in 1953 in A queen, New York, Dawoud Bey’s career has spanned five decades, securing his place as being a well-respected photographer, one capable to connect to the communities this individual investigates. Now he has their first retrospective in 25 years. Titled An American Project , the exhibition runs till 03 October 2021 in the Whitney Museum of United states Art, New York, and is co-organised with the San Francisco Museum of recent Art. It arrives during a monumentally tragic time for a lot of worldwide. Recognising this helps underscore some of Bey’s motives while raising questions about how we bear witness in a globe that Bey has been studying for some time.

The show invitations viewers to observe the expansive eyesight of Bey’s work more than different periods, organised simply by theme and chronologically, through 1975 to 2017. Started photography as a teenager, influenced by iconic photographer James Van Der Zee, and soon made a title for himself with his own portraiture. In his first series, Harlem, USA (1979), Bey chronicled Harlem’s residents with a small 35mm camera as well as a wide-angle lens. The neighborhood would go on to change and, 40 years later, Bey mentioned the transformations and displacement inflicted by gentrification in another project, Harlem Redux (2014-2017). In many ways, the process of return and reinvention is a sign of Bey’s overarching technique.

2 girls
from a marching music group,
Harlem. NY. 1990 ©
Dawoud Bey and
courtesy of the artist,
Sean Kelly Gallery,
Stephen Daiter Gallery,
and Rena Bransten
Photo gallery.

Bey often focuses on the unavoidable complications of an unsettled past and how they affect the existing. He is outspoken about joining his subjects ethically and as collaborators. When I ask about his motivations, Bey describes his practice as “history-based work”. He points to 2 more recent projects, on display at the Whitney, which display this when I inquire about what sets this latest exhibit apart: “An American Project is my third retrospective exhibition, ” he shows. “Each one has added to the ideas and subjects I have been working through since the final one. An American Task contains two of my most recent projects, The Bromley Project and Night Coming Tenderly, Black. The first 2 [iterations] associated with what has become an ongoing history project that visualises plus reimagines aspects of African American background, ” as Bey points out it.

Night Approaching Tenderly, Black sees Bey step beyond the human subject to landscapes around a section of the particular Underground Railroad, which ran through northeastern Ohio. The photographer sought to reimagine and depict the travails of enslaved Africans getting away from bondage, employing topography and buildings that could have got offered shelter and security on their journey to independence. The Birmingham Project offers messaging through portraiture. The portraits commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by white supremacists in Birmingham, Alabama. Bey created diptychs of children age the four girls mortally wounded in the bombing and the 2 boys who were also murdered in its violent aftermath, together with adults the ages they would have already been if they had lived.  

Dawoud Bey, Don Sledge plus Moses Austin. Birmingham, ‘S. 2012 © Dawoud Bey.

Betty Selvage and Faith Speights, Birmingham, AL. 2012 © Dawoud Bey.

Mathis Menefee and Cassandra Griffin. Birmingham, AL. 2012 © Dawoud Bey.

The work poses issues regarding depiction and rendering. In an interview with The University of Texas Press , Bey said of the bombing victims that he sought to “make them real”, and both these later works deal with the idea of resurrection. One question that they raise is usually: what does it mean in order to resurrect a life well known through death? It’s a question that artists, institutions plus activists struggle with when it comes to Liverpool and the many other historic locations known for violence. Indeed, it might be hard to interpret the language of history without repackaging violence through words and images which are foreign to those who were not really there. So translations risk becoming assumptions, miscommunicating history’s message. Bey does not appear intimidated by this.  

The late Maurice Berger wrote that Bey transforms the “epochal story into a flesh and blood reality…through images of contemporary Americans who are no different from us”. Sometimes audiences may feel they have to see it to believe it. However it depends on who is looking since the violence many have however to escape is still a resided reality. I wondered about Bey’s process and care when photographing vulnerable subjects, and asked him about this. He told me, “Because certain kinds of photos more closely resemble fact, they tend to have more trustworthiness. I consider myself to become a humanist, someone who is trying in order to provoke the human community in to a conversation with itself. ” 

For the underrepresented, Bey says, “I make my work as a way of reshaping the experience of the world; to look at this and engage with it upon my terms and reframe whatever the dominant narrative might be”. As Bey continues his work chronicling Dark people’s lives, we should hope one day the people he has outlined for others will see true freedom themselves.  

Hilary and
Taro, 1992. © Dawoud Bey.

William Anderson

William C. Anderson is a writer and activist through Birmingham, Alabama. His function has appeared in the Protector, MTV, Truthout, and Pitchfork, among others. He is the co-author of the book As Dark as Resistance (AK Press. 2018) and his writings have been included in the anthologies, Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Defend? (Haymarket, 2016) and No Selves to Defend. His forthcoming book The Nation On No Map will be published in 2021 by AK Press.

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