Dawoud Bey; An American Project at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Dawoud Bey (b. 1953) is recognized as one of the most innovative and influential photographers of his generation. Since the beginning of his career, Bey has used his camera to visualize communities and histories that have largely remained underrepresented or even unseen. Starting with his earliest body of work, Harlem, USA (1975–79), Bey has worked primarily in portraiture, making direct and psychologically resonant portrayals of socially marginalized subjects. The exhibition includes his early portraits of Harlem residents, large-scale color Polaroids, and a series of collaborative portraits of high school students, among others. Two recent bodies of work, The Birmingham Project (2012) and Night Coming Tenderly, Black (2017), render American history in forms at once lyrical and immediate. He sees making art as not just a kind of personal expression but as an act of social and political engagement, emphasizing the necessary work of artists and art institutions to break down obstacles to access, to convene communities, and to open dialogue.

Dawoud Bey: An American Project is co-organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition is co-curated by Elisabeth Sherman, assistant curator at the Whitney, and Corey Keller, curator of photography at SFMOMA.

I was able to attend the Press Preview for the opening of this exhibit last week. Once you leave the elevators on the 8th floor, there is a choice when entering the exhibit; go right or left. I went right, the clockwise direction. I wonder if that natural movement pattern has anything to do with following the light of the sun.

The room on the right was painted black and presented black and white portraits with white frames. There is something direct about them, the way the whites of the eyes invite onlookers, the contrast between shadow and highlights that makes it obvious where the light it coming from. Many of these were outdoor portraits, people on the street, so it was clear if the sun was overhead or lower in the sky. You can look at the clothes of these individuals and get a sense of time and place from their style and and position in day or moonlight. The frozen moment of the photograph seems like a direct interaction, a bilateral exchange of energy between the face looking at and the face looking out from these portraits.

Deeper into the room on the right are hung large colored portraits which are broken into pieces. Just in the way that light disperses with the refracted energy of color, these peices have a sense of timelessness, there is a slower more circular way of taking in the portrait. Sometimes the pieces, like that of a puzzle, align but don’t touch. In some portraits, the pieces next to each other don’t match causing the subjects to intertwine when more than one person is present, or to show different attitudes and angles if of a single person.

Circling around, I came to the middle room, again painted white. Here there are large portraits of teenagers looking out from their photos with an array of emotions; one seems calm, another slightly aggressive. Next to the portraits are text written by the teenage subjects, describing something about themselves, their lives or appearance. Sometimes the descriptions are short, calling attention to physical traits like their skin color or hair length. Other times they describe their strengths and weaknesses, relationships to their parents, relationships to those traits like their skin color and how they imagine the world sees them. I really want to know what the prompts were for these people to reveal themselves in their chosen ways. I wonder how they wanted to be seen and what the relationship is between what the camera catches and how they describe themselves.

Finally, in the room on the left, all is black. The walls are black, as are the photos. When I first walked in, I thought the room was not even part of the exhibit, that the frames were empty. When you walk closer, you see night shots of farm houses, woods, the sea. Inspired by Langston Hughes poetry, “Black like me,” the photos imagine the flight of Black Americans along the leg of the Underground Railroad. These photos don’t show any human figures, but instead capture the presence where invisibility was requisite for safety. At first, I felt very ill-at-ease looking at these. There’s a stillness, emptiness, quietness that seems forced. As I approached the frames, I could see my own very white face reflecting back from the glass. It was personally an extremely disquieting experience to see myself in these scenes. After I read that they were images from an imaged pathway towards freedom and I circled around again, the experience of looking at the dark windows of the farmhouses and shadows under the tall trees was a bit more calm, as if the lack of people meant safety for whoever was hiding there, but I found I disliked seeing the reflection of people even more so in the otherwise undisturbed photo.

I like Langston Hughes too:

I had two major theads of thought from this exhibit; the first was the humanistic sice of how we are seen and present ourselves or hide away from view. Does what we think about ourselves come through in a our presence, in an instantaneous picture? Are we seen for all of our angles and colors?

The second is the physics of light and color itself.

Anything that is physical in existence naturally reflects light. Once it reflects light, it will have color in your perception. It may not have any particular color or it may not have the color that you see. You are only seeing what’s being relected, what you’re seeing is the reflected light. You are not seeing the color of the substance. The different colors correspond to light with different wavelengths, and are refracted to differing degrees. This separation of colors is known as dispersion. Once the colors in sunlight are separated by refraction, we are able to distinguish them in the splendor that is a rainbow

See a slideshow from the Press Preview on Instagram or Tik Tok

What I loved about this exhibit was the communication and interaction with each body of work and subject from color and light. There was the immediacy of the black and white, the split second of the flash like an interruption of their lives as we are all driven by the clock following solar patterns of the sun and it’s planetary cycles.

This is a distinct experience from the color photos, which bends light, absorbs, reflects, interacts. It says as much with the separation of the parts than each as a whole, and seemed like they would keep spreading and expanding along the walls- the way the understanding of another person grows as we see them for their pixilated experiences quirks and stories- if they weren’t nailed to their fixed spots on the wall.

This exhibit made me think about the color of people, and how we might see them as fixed like a portrait nailed to a wall, rather than a continuous cycle.

A human being is a color wheel Dawoud Bey’s work shows this in it’s various uses of color, camera, and light.

More reviews from The Whitney: Jason Moran exhibit / Agnes Pelton exhibit / Salman Toor exhibit/ Andy Warhol exhibit

Get tickets and more info Here

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