THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
By Don Desmett
When Belinda Tate arrived at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA), she promptly transformed the exhibitions program into a steady and innovative voice for minority artists. Photographer Dawoud Bey’s exhibition, “Harlem, USA–Harlem Redux,” is a continuation of KIA’s support for extremely gifted minority voices in contemporary visual arts. Bey unquestionably qualifies as such a voice; named Distinguished College Artist at Columbia College Chicago (where he has taught since 1998), in 2017, he received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
Bey’s Harlem series, dating back to 1979, has been written about extensively since its first venue at the Studio Museum of Harlem. That series of 25 black & white portraits owe not only their subject matter but also a visual influence from the photographs of James Van Der Zee. In this version of the Harlem, USA installation, the KIA has added six Van Der Zee photos from their permanent collection as background to the Bey series.
Figure 1. James Van Der Zee (American, 1886-1983), Portrait of Two Brothers and Their Sister, Harlem, 1931, gelatin silver print. Collection of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts
It is great to see an image like Van Der Zee’s Portrait of Two Brothers and Their Sister, Harlem (1931) [figure 1] juxtaposed with Bey’s Three Women at a Parade (1978) [figure 2]. What these two great photographers capture is the strength of the individuals as a closely connected community group, regardless of whether the representation be that of family or friends. The figures’ stylish attire, though decades apart in time, forms a monogram of sorts to community predilection and pride. In both artists’ compositions, the seemingly ordinary becomes extraordinary.
Figure 2. Dawoud Bey, Three Women at a Parade, 1978, silver gelatin print. © Dawoud Bey. Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago
Other favorites from this remarkable portfolio that give formidable voice to the ordinary subject include A Boy in Front of the Loews 125th Street Movie Theater (1976) [figure 3] and Mr. Moore’s Bar-B-Que, 125th Street (1976) [figure 4]. In the Loews photo, the youngster is dressed in 70’s attire, but the architecture and pose could be from the same Harlem captured by Van Der Zee’s eye.
In Mr. Moore’s Bar-B-Que, the setting is a classic space that symbolizes as much a community-meeting place as a place for scrumptious “street food.” These photographs become masterpieces of urban portraiture, where architectural settings influence how we reflect on the person captured in the photo.
In Harlem Redux (2014-2017), which constitutes the second half of the exhibition, Bey has flipped the foreground focus from the people of Harlem to its rapidly changing architecture that is literally driving its longtime residents out of the neighborhood picture.
The photographs, different in scale, color (from black & white) and, at first glance, even subject, document Harlem’s transformation, and with it, the evidence of the destruction of historic places and the memories they once held. These photographs are sorrowful in their vision, possibly reducing the rich history that even Van Der Zee captured to stonewashed reminiscences.
Figure 4. Dawoud Bey, Mr. Moore’s Bar-B-Que, 125th Street, 1976, silver gelatin print. © Dawoud Bey. Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago
Although Bey photographed in color, surprisingly, color does not stand out in the majority of these photographs. Drab construction sites and blank building walls that compositionally take up a large percentage of the picture plane drain the energy of the image of a gentrified Harlem.
In Two Men Walking (2014) [figure 5], only the title gives a useful clue to the two men seen far in the distance and overwhelmed by the building in the foreground. This photograph attempts to capture Harlem’s street life with the massive building and “progress” that is taking place throughout Harlem while, at the same time, vanquishing that energy from sight.
By contrast, in Aloft Hotel (2016) [figure 6], a more positive work that connects to Bey’s rich understanding of the portrait, we delight in the bond of the subject to her architectural setting. In this piece, Bey allows himself to reinforce, through the use of color, the viewer’s eye movement throughout the photograph: the green color of the potted plant in its own architectural space unites with the woman’s green hat and the green bottle she is holding. Rich in cultural history that we can cling to in our thoughts and perceptive consciousness, Aloft Hotel gives hope for the preservation of a neighborhood’s irreplaceable character.
Harlem and Harlem Redux are important works of art and meaningful historical documents of a time, a place, and a community rich in its unique history and significance. As with Van Der Zee, Bey’s art is an extension of that history.
Don Desmett is an independent curator and critic now living in Michigan.
Figure 5. Dawoud Bey, Two Men Walking (from “Harlem Redux”), 2014, Archival pigment photograph. Signed, titled and editioned ‘1/6’ by artist on print verso. Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago
Figure 6. Dawoud Bey, Aloft Hotel (from “Harlem Redux”), 2016, Archival pigment photograph. Signed, titled and editioned ‘1/6’ by artist on print verso. Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago
Figure 3. Dawoud Bey, A Boy in Front of the Loews 125th Street Movie Theater, 1976. Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago