'Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project' at NGA
Starting September 12, 2018, on view at the National Gallery of Art is the recent acquisition of four large-scale photographs and one video from Dawoud Bey's most important series, "The Birmingham Project."
For more than 40 years photographer Dawoud Bey (b. 1953) has portrayed American youth and those from marginalized communities with an unusual degree of sensitivity and complexity. This deeply felt and conceptually rich monument to the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963 coincides with the 55th anniversary of this tragedy. The exhibition focuses on Bey's representation of the past through the lens of the present, pushing the boundaries of portraiture and engaging ongoing national issues of racism, violence against African Americans, and terrorism in churches.
In four diptychs Bey pairs two life-size portraits representing the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and related violence in Birmingham that Sunday in 1963: one portrait of a young person the same age as one of the victims, and another of an adult 50 years older—the child's age had he or she survived. Alongside these photographs, the exhibition features Bey's video 9.15.63. This split-screen projection juxtaposes, on the right, a recreation of the drive to the 16th Street Baptist Church, shot from the window of a moving vehicle looking up at trees and the roofs of houses from the vantage point of a young child. On the left, slow pans move through everyday spaces—some familiar (a beauty parlor and barbershop), some politically charged (a lunch counter and schoolroom), as they might have appeared that Sunday morning. Devoid of people, these views poeticize the innocent, mundane existences ripped apart by violence.
A short film of approximately eight minutes is screened in the project room in the West Building and also will be available on the exhibition's webpage. Featuring an interview with Bey, the film will provide valuable context for understanding the series in light of Bey's broader interests in portraiture and American history. It explores how the artist became interested in the topic, how he arrived at the final formulation of his series in diptych portraits and a video, and what he learned on his repeated trips to Birmingham over seven years of research. Finally, the film addresses the links between Bey's work in Birmingham and his current long-term project on the Underground Railroad.