For the run of the exhibition, SVA Close Up is highlighting members of the SVA community selected for the 2014 Whitney Biennial (March 7 – May 25). This is the second in the installment.
On the fourth floor of the Whitney Biennial, to the left of the wall text introducing Michelle Grabner’s curatorial intentions, gleams a portrait of President Barack Obama, framed in white. Hung high, directly above a fire alarm, Obama peers sharp and tieless at the viewer. A direct gaze is common in Dawoud Bey’s (IW 1977 Photography) portraiture. He creates for the viewer a relationship to the photograph that is at once intimate and confrontational while capturing the individuality of his subjects.
Also on view in this year’s Biennial are two works from Bey’s “The Birmingham Project,” created in remembrance of the September 15, 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and related hate crimes on the same day, which resulted in the deaths of six young people.
The black and white diptychs depict two individuals: one the age of one of the deceased, and one the age the victim would have been in 2012, the year the project was completed. According to Whitney.org:
“The project is in part Bey’s response to seeing, almost fifty years earlier, a black-and-white photograph of bombing survivor Sarah Jean Collins, confined to a hospital bed, her face mangled. The image had immediately gripped the young Bey, who, as an African American child, understood that it could have been him lying there.”
Bey’s photographs invite an empathic response to a visualization of both loss and survival. The inclusion of Obama’s portrait at the entrance to the fourth floor may invite multiple reads, but in a Biennial that has been critiqued for a lack of political work, Bey’s photographs stand out, inviting reflection on racism and violence, political progress
and historical remembrance.
Images from top down: Dawoud Bey, Barack Obama, 2008, pigmented inkjet print, 40 x 32 in. (101.6 x 81.3 cm), collection of the artist; courtesy Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago. Dawoud Bey, Maxine Adams and Amelia Maxwell (from The Birmingham Project), 2012, archival pigment prints mounted on dibond, 40 x 64 in, courtesy of the artist. Both copyright Dawoud Bey.