Photographer Dawoud Bey's impressive retrospective at MoCA surveys more than three decades of work created after his breakthrough project, Harlem U.S.A. Bey's bold images combine authenticity with aesthetics, grappling with the question of how photography can convey the "least untrue self." The seven distinct series on view represent the diversity within specific communities—especially African Americans and youth. As a Black artist, Bey has always been acutely aware of the need for images that present Black people with integrity and self-respect. And as a college educator, Bey sees young adults with sympathetic eyes. By focusing on the complex identities of the individuals in these two groups, Bey provides a much-needed counterpoint to the flat stereotypes perpetuated by mainstream culture.
The show's prologue is a sampling of small black and white street photos that capture a wide range of spontaneous moments in the everyday lives of Black Americans. In one striking shot, a ray of sunlight spotlights a teenage girl wearing the uniform of a low-wage service worker. Framed by surroundings that are almost entirely in shadow, and with a reflective look in her eyes, the beautiful girl is engaged in the unglamorous task of sweeping the floor at a McDonald's.
Dawoud Bey, Chris, 2002, Chromogenic print, 40 x 50 inches; Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami.
The rest of the show consists of large-format photographs in which people pose for the camera self-consciously. Although still depicted in his or her everyday environment, the subject is now given more control. The portrait becomes an intimate collaboration, a dance between the subject and the photographer, in which body language, facial expression, dress, and composition all combine to create an arresting performance.
Bey's large black and white street photographs feature a diverse array of Black people against urban backdrops, from a small boy sucking on candy to a teen girl with a nose pin to a gray-haired gentleman in a fedora. Looking at the camera with penetrating eyes, their expressions range from forlorn to welcoming. Each individual has a unique, commanding presence.
The remainder of the exhibition is in rich, vivid color, lending a greater sense of immediacy. In his large color street photographs, Bey creates sensitive portraits of Black youth in parks and other grassy settings, each with his or her own sense of style. And in his Character Project, Bey plays on the dual meaning of the word "character," presenting a rainbow of ethnically and stylistically diverse young adults. The artist uses the expressive potential of arms and hands to great effect, highlighting the tension between strength and vulnerability, tenderness and toughness, that lies within each individual.
Dawoud Bey, Eva, 2009, Pigment Print, 30 x 24 inches; Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami.
With his Polaroid 20x24 Works, Bey breaks away from the primacy of the single image. Multiple color photographs of the same subject—each in its own frame—are assembled to form compositions that comment on the multifaceted nature of individual identity. Diptychs and triptychs use repetition and extreme close-ups to suggest psychological narratives a la Lorna Simpson. Larger works, reminiscent of Cubist paintings, show single tableaus comprised of grids of six or eight prints. In these works the faces of college-age Black men are interrupted, split in two by white borders and dark frames. On either side, the angle of the head varies, a powerful metaphor for the dichotomy between the individual's complex inner identity and the distorted way he is perceived by others.
As a way to address this contradiction, Bey's series of Class Pictures literally gives voice to his subjects, pairing portraits of high school students with first-person texts written by the students themselves. The youth reflect poignantly on the misconceptions that others have about them, and the truths about themselves that they most want other to see. Chris, for example, writes "I think I come off as a bad person," narrating a specific incident in which he felt the police stereotyped him and treated him disrespectfully, as though he were "dumb"—even though he knows that he is not.
Bey's most recent series, Strangers/Community, is elegantly simple: two people from the same socio-geographic community—but who do not know each other—pose together. We immediately notice the differences—younger and older, male and female, Black and White—as well as differences in posture, body type, and clothing style. But the many subtle commonalities and correlations make us question our assumptions. For example, Kali-Ahset Amen may be an African-American woman wearing jeans, while Geshe Ngawang Phende may be an Asian monk, but both have gentle, self-possessed smiles that radiate peace, and both tilt their heads at the same slight angle. The physical proximity of each duo also implies intimacy, reminding us of the possibilities for human connection that exist within each community—not just in Atlanta or Chicago, but also here in South Florida.
(Image on top: Dawoud Bey, Kali-Ashet Amen and Geshe Ngawang Phende, 2010 , Pigment Print , 40 x 50 inches; Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami.)