The Birmingham Project: behind Dawoud Bey’s haunting portraits

The photographer talks about his photo series examining black life after the murders of six children in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963

Addie Mae Collins

On 15 September 1963, the Ku Klux Klan planted dynamite in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, a church that previously had been the headquarters for Martin Luther Kings anti-segregationist marches.

The bombing killed four girls getting ready for Sunday service Carol Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14. Within hours of the bombing, across the city, two African American boys, Virgil Ware, 13, and James Johnny Robinson, 16, were murdered by two white men returning from a segregation rally.

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Chicago photographer Dawoud Bey (born David Edward Smikle) has paid tribute to the victims of the attacks, which were a turning point in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, in a photo series entitled The Birmingham Project, which is currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC until 24 March 2019.

At the time I was making this work in 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed, said Bey. So clearly, the horrifying issue of the slaughter of innocents is still very much with us, making this work as relevant and pertinent as it ever was.

The photo series features portraits of the church community who each have 50 years between them; each diptych has a young person the same age as one of the victims who died in 1963, paired with another of an adult 50 years older (how old the child would have been, had they survived).

It all started when Bey was 11 years old. My parents brought home a copy of The Movement, which was a book of photographs of and about the civil rights movement by a number of different photographers, said Bey.

He recalls seeing a photo of Sarah Collins, the surviving younger sister of one of the bombing victims, lying in a hospital bed with cotton balls over her eyes and her skin mutilated from the explosion.

Almost 40 years later, that image came back to Bey. Thirty-eight years after seeing that photograph in the book, I sat bolt upright in bed one morning after that image appeared to me in my sleep, he said. Im not sure what shook it loose, but I knew that I needed to go to Birmingham, to see the place where this traumatic event had occurred, and to think about how I might make some work in response to that moment.

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On his first visit to Birmingham, Bey attended a service at 16th Street Baptist church and introduced himself to the minister, explaining he wanted to make an artwork about the 1963 attacks.

Before I could get too far, he interrupted me to tell me that, Here at the 16th Street Baptist church, were not about all of that business, recalls Bey. He said: Were about the business of Jesus Christ, and if you want to make some work about that, wed be happy to work with you.

Dawoud
Dawoud Bey Michael-Anthony Allen and George Washington, 2012. Photograph: Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Bey says it was a response he was totally unprepared for.

It was the first indication that the history I was hoping to engage with was far more complicated than I thought, he said. My preoccupations were not necessarily the same as those living in Birmingham now.

To create an artwork that reflected Birmingham today, Bey put out a call in the community looking for subjects to photograph, from school visits to barbershops, beauty parlors and restaurants. All of the subjects in the photographs live in Birmingham, he said.

Age was certainly a factor when photographing Birmingham residents whose ages either correspond to the ages of the children in the 1963 attacks, or to how old they would have been 50 later, when he photographed them in 2013.

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I wanted to engage the idea of the passage of time, and the fact that those young people never had a chance to live out their lives, I decided to make portraits of African American adults in Birmingham who were the ages they would have been had their lives not been cut short, he said. All of the adults in the photos remembered that Sunday morning; a few of them knew the girls who were killed, since they would have been the same ages.

The completed series features 16 diptychs (32 paired portraits), and the subjects did not know each other. They were photographed separately and paired only after the fact, said Bey. They had to complete each other in some way.

Pairing them as diptychs allowed for a way to imply the passage of time in the still photograph, he said. By pairing them, each diptych embodied 50 years.

The photos were shot in historical locations in Birmingham; half were taken at the Bethel Baptist church, a headquarters for the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and site of earlier bombings. The other half were made in the Birmingham Museum of Art, an institution that restricted admission for African Americans to once a week through the early 1960s.

Part of this series has been acquired by the National Gallery of Art, making visible a piece of history for generations to come. The black presence in the museum space is a fairly recent occurrence, he said. As a result of decades of struggle, and a demand for access, a generation of more progressively-minded museum directors and curators have emerged and some of those walls of exclusion are coming down.

  • The Birmingham Project is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until 24 March

Original Article : HERE ; This post was curated & posted using : RealSpecific

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