The career of Dawoud Bey — an American photographer famous for highlighting black subjects and African-American history — is the focal point of SFMOMA’s newest exhibit, Dawoud Bey: An American Project, which includes his early portraits of Harlem residents and much more.
Featuring 80 pieces of the 67-year-old's work (large-scale studio portraits, historically significant snaps, etc.), Dawoud Bey: An American Project captures Bey’s four-decade-plus profession, earnestly.
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"Black people have been killed for directing their gaze at the wrong person. I want my subjects to reclaim their right to look, to see, to be seen." -Dawoud Bey (@dawoudbey). . Since the beginning of his career, Bey has used his camera to depict communities + histories that have largely remained underrepresented or even unseen. Dawoud Bey: An American Project opens on Sat, 2/15 at SFMOMA. Bey will be in-conversation with Leigh Raiford on Thurs, 2/13 to expand on the representation of blackness as an aesthetic and political act. Learn more via the link in our bio. . . . [#DawoudBey, A Young Man Resting on an Exercise Bike, Amityville, NY, 1988; courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, Stephen Daiter Gallery, and Rena Bransten Gallery; © Dawoud Bey]
The exhibit was also organized with both theme and chronology in mind. Harlem, USA, Bey’s black-and-white series created shot between 1975–1978, sits as one bookend, with his most recent work, 2018’s Night Coming Tenderly, Black — which captures, in monochromes, the perceived life of a fugitive slave traveling along the Underground Railroad — existing as the other.
Throughout Bey's over forty years of work, the born-and-raised Queens-native said in a press release published by the museum that his process has remained consistent over the decades: “It begins with the subject [and] a deep interest in wanting to describe the black subject in a way that's as complex as the experiences of anyone else.” Bey also goes on to say he aims to “reshape the world, one person at a time.”
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"My portraits of the black subject don’t explain or justify anyone or anything; instead, they affirm the presence of the people in them, presuming their right to exist as they are." -Dawoud Bey (@dawoudbey) via @BOMBmagazine. . Artist Dawoud Bey will be in-conversation with Leigh Raiford this Thurs, Feb. 13. Tickets are sold out, but rush tickets may be available 30 minutes prior to the start of the event on a first-come, first-served basis (link in bio). . . . [#DawoudBey, A Woman at Convent Avenue Baptist Church, Harlem, NY, from the series Harlem, U.S.A., 1977; courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, Stephen Daiter Gallery, and Rena Bransten Gallery; © Dawoud Bey]
Though, no matter where your gaze falls while perusing the exhibit, Bey’s undeniable “power” and “formal skill” won’t go unseen.
“The power of Bey’s work comes from the marriage of his extraordinary formal skill as a photographer with his deeply held belief in the political power of representation,” says Corey Keller, curator of photography at SFMOMA. “He sees making art as not just a personal expression but as an act of social responsibility, emphasizing the necessary work of artists and art institutions to break down obstacles to access, to convene communities and open dialogue.”
And given the current political landscape we’re all navigating through, there’s no better time than right now to meet in fellowship and discuss the nitty-gritty bits of Americana.
Co-organized with the Whitney Museum of American Art, Dawoud Bey: An American Project is open now until May 25th on the 3rd floor of the SFMOMA.
Image: Don Ross/SFMOMA