Dawoud Bey’s ‘American Project’ Creates a Tender Space for Blackness

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Dawoud Bey, 'Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, Birmingham, AL,' from the series 'The Birmingham Project,' 2012. (Rennie Collection, Vancouver)

Dawoud Bey’s retrospective, An American Project, is so full of people that it can’t help but feel a bit crowded. That is, it’s full of images of people, sometimes larger than life, the details of their clothing, surroundings and facial expressions shown in high relief. Premiering at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art before journeying on to Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and later the Whitney, the show represents over four decades of years of Bey’s steadily focused career, one built on bringing images of black America (and its history) into fine art contexts.

Bey’s very career started with seeing himself in a fine art context: in the Metropolitan Museum’s widely criticized 1969 exhibition Harlem on My Mind. He arrived to catch a glimpse of and possibly participate in the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition’s protests of the show, which featured sociological photomurals of Harlem residents, but no work by black artists. Bey now says, “Fate had other plans.” Meeting no protests, he walked through the exhibition instead. It was the first time he’d seen photographs of ordinary African American people take up space in a museum.

Ten years later, Queens-born Bey exhibited the series Harlem, U.S.A. at the Studio Museum in Harlem, a direct answer to that formative experience of his teenage years. In these photographs, Bey captures ordinary people living ordinary lives: children ham for the camera, women in fancy hats sit in church or line a parade route, a barber strikes a casual pose in his shop. This is not street photography of the sneaky Lee Friedlander or Walker Evans variety—Bey’s subjects seem aware of his camera, willing participants in the exchange.

Dawoud Bey, 'A Man in a Bowler Hat, Harlem, NY,' from the series 'Harlem, U.S.A.,' 1976. (Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, Stephen Daiter Gallery, and Rena Bransten Gallery)

As An American Project moves chronologically and thematically between Bey’s bodies of work, curators Corey Keller and Elisabeth Sherman make clear the flow of his practice, which builds on previous approaches and often begins with a connection to a particular institution. In a series created during a residency at Light Work in Syracuse, New York, Bey again used a handheld 35mm camera (as he did for Harlem, U.S.A.) to photograph the city’s African American community. In these works, all from the mid-’80s, Bey’s compositions shift into more dynamic presentations of three-dimensional space. The hard diagonal lines of shadows become just as important as people.

Over time, Bey’s street photographs morph into more formal portraiture with the help of a larger camera, then move indoors and become colorful, even fractured. In one work from 1993, three separate prints capture five young people (Sharmaine, Vincent, Joseph, Andre and Charlie, Chicago, IL), their poses and relationships to one another shifting over the span of each large-scale Polaroid image. Where Harlem, U.S.A. depicted people rooted in their neighborhood, these portraits are all about interpersonal relationships—people as surroundings.

Dawoud Bey, 'Alva, New York, NY,' 1992. (Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts)

The culmination of these material experiments and sustained exercises in capturing images of specific groups (teenagers, artists, Harlem residents) is The Birmingham Project, a series again connected to an institution, this time the Birmingham Museum of Art. To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four girls and sparked citywide violence that later led to the death of two boys, Bey created six diptychs. Their conceit is simple: in one image sits a child the same age as one of the boys or girls when they died; in the other sits a man or woman the age that child would now be. These unrelated surrogates—and the 50 years of life between them—evoke in straightforward and unequivocal terms the loss of possibility that racism and racist violence create.


When Bey turns his camera away from people—as he does in Harlem Redux and Night Coming Tenderly, Black—the viewer fills in the space of the absent body he usually represents. In the former, it’s the point of view of a Harlem resident observing the neighborhood’s changes in 2015. Where in 1976 we might have seen a dapper man in a bowler hat leaning on a railing, there’s now a group of white tourists gathered outside the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church. (Unsettlingly, the disembodied arm of one of those tourists grips the trunk of a tree in a gesture that reads like ownership.)

In the latter series, Bey’s latest, he puts viewers into the vantage point of someone escaping slavery, or as he poetically says, someone undergoing a “self-liberation project.” In large images taken during the day and printed dark to resemble night, Bey imagines a route through woods and past farmhouses to the edge of Lake Erie and potential freedom in Canada. Night Coming Tenderly, Black, its title borrowed from a Langston Hughes poem, was once again made through an institutional connection, this time the 2017 Cleveland triennial. The works were first exhibited suspended, like ghostly reminders, over the pews of Cleveland’s Saint John’s Episcopal Church, believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Dawoud Bey, 'Untitled #20 (Farmhouse and Picket Fence I),' from the series 'Night Coming Tenderly, Black,' 2017. (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

In this way, Bey’s career, which the SFMOMA show charts from 1975 to 2017, also reaches back to 1963 and the early 18th century. The “American project” of his work isn’t just about inserting images of black life and history into white-box spaces, but documenting the inextricability of African American experience from “America” as a whole.

In Nikole Hannah-Jones’ opening essay for New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project,” she writes of black Americans’ role in shaping the country: “The truth is that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of black resistance.”

Bey’s form of resistance is an insistence that audiences acknowledge the value of spending time with his subjects, as he has. It is an insistence that the past resonates with the contemporary moment, and that experiences with the potential to shape the course of one’s life can happen in fine art contexts.


'Dawoud Bey: An American Project' is on view at SFMOMA through May 25. Details here.