Dawoud Bey: An American Project is now on view at High Museum of Art.
“A Boy in Front of the Loews 125th Street Movie Theater” Harlem, N.Y. (1976)
For 45 years, photographer Dawoud Bey has been capturing underrepresented communities and people in America. Now, the High Museum of Art (high.org), is celebrating him through its Dawoud Bey: An American Project exhibit, on display through March 14, 2021. His explorations of African American history and Black experience span from street portraits in Harlem in the 1970s to a landscape series on escaping the Underground Railroad. Presented chronologically, the exhibition allows viewers to see not only how Bey has evolved as a photographer, but how the Black experience has evolved as well. Included in his body of work: photographs from The Birmingham Project; a tribute to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings; and Class Pictures, which provides a glimpse at American high school students. The artist, who won the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award in 2019, aims to create conversation and dialogue around his work, and the exhibition exemplifies the High’s commitment to supporting and presenting the work of diverse artists.
“The Birmingham Project: Don Sledge and Moses Austin” (2012)
Photography has long been a medium of focus for the museum, which began collecting photography in the 1970s. Says Sarah Kennel, the High’s Donald and Marilyn Keough Family curator of photography, “The High’s curators and directors at that time wisely understood that photography was very much the visual language of the 20th century, was a uniquely accessible and democratic form of art, and could also greatly distinguish the museum among its peers, some of which did not take photography seriously at the time.”
With over 8,200 works, photography is “the largest single collecting area” in the museum, with Kennel noting that it “allows us to tell the important story of how photography has come to define (and has been shaped by) the history of the South. … It’s an infinitely diverse, shifting, prolific medium.”
Bey fits seamlessly into this concept. “His art is grounded in the concept of citizenship, community and belonging, and especially in centering the experiences and histories of Black Americans at the forefront of our culture. His photographs actively work to provide space, voice and visibility for communities who have long been excluded from dominant narratives, especially in institutions like museums.”
Impressively, the High has increased its nonwhite attendance in the last five years from 15% to 51%, a 240% increase, with exhibits such as Bey’s contributing to continued interest in the museum’s offerings. Kennel says: “[Bey’s] art allows us to do so many things: to reveal his mastery of his medium, to connect and engage with our viewers, to open a space for discussion, and even intervention within our museum walls on big questions of history, race, citizenship and community.”
“Three Women at a Parade” Harlem, N.Y. (1978); all by Dawoud Bey
Photography by: photos by dawoud bey/courtesy of the high museum of art