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Dawoud Bey


by Pedro Vélez
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Dawoud Bey is Chicago’s holy mountain, a man who towers over the city like no other local artist. You can always find him at openings, speaking at public forums or doing open crits. He is a beloved educator and father figure to many, and if you ask for advice or have a question about some bit of historical minutiae he’ll deliver, which he also does generously on his famous blog What’s Going On. Now Chicago is reciprocating that love with “Dawoud Bey: Picturing People,” May 13-June 24, 2012, a quaint yet outstanding 30-year survey at the Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago.

The Art Institute of Chicago is also joining the celebration. The museum is showing off its recent acquisition of the complete set of “Harlem, U.S.A.,” a total of 25 black-and-white vintage prints that were last seen together in 1979 at the Studio Museum in Harlem. These photos were deceptively original, portraying black Americans just like any other Americans, in the act of living. The complete set will be on view at AIC though Sept. 9.

“Picturing People” takes us on a journey from Bey’s casual street encounters, aiming a 35mm camera at his subjects during the 1970s and 1980s, to his fragmented studio portraits of the 1990s, and up to his most recent psychological studies of teenagers. If there ever was any doubt, this survey reinforces what we already know: Bey is a master of portraiture.

Bey is at his best when working with saturated colors, large formats and using cameras like a 20-by-24-inch Polaroid on a tripod. That’s how he pretty much achieved his trademark polyptychs, by zooming in, augmenting details and enclosing space, focusing solely on the subject’s eyes and face, not so much on his or her environs. For example, in Carrie I (1997), a large full body portrait of a girl sort of crouching on a chair, Bey photographed parts of the sitter and then reassembled the fragmented portrait in an image that references Cubism, David Hockney’s photo collages, and the human and architectural displacement found in the collages of Harlem Renaissance master Romare Bearden (1911-1988).

One constant throughout the show is the positive reinforcement provided for each individual. Such optimism flourishes because the artist never exploits exotic stereotypes and, although race or class is always present, it never becomes a critical pun. Another constant is the ways that fashion, a hairdo or garment label, for instance, inadvertently intrudes to mark a particular moment in time.

Bey’s most successful series is perhaps “Class Pictures” (2002-2007), in which the artist photographed high school students in the cities of Detroit, New York, Orlando and San Francisco. These photos are accompanied by single-page descriptions written by the subjects themselves, resulting in a timeless and poignant archive, sometimes heartbreaking and other times heroic, of the lives of these teenagers.

One that broke my heart is Odalys (2003). She is a dark haired girl with big sorrowful eyes who is photographed with her backpack. In her testimonial she explains that she spends time with her newborn baby while going to school and that everyone knows her by the nickname of “little pregnant girl.” I see kids like Odalys every day in Chicago’s South Side where I teach. For most the struggle continues.

In "Picturing People" the artist also debuts “Strangers/Community.” For this series he brings together pairs of people who belong to the same socio-geographic neighborhood, but otherwise don’t know each other, for a double portrait. The subjects are pictured in educational centers like universities or libraries, but the result is akin to commercial pictorials found in Newsweek or Time Magazine. Nevertheless, what makes Bey so special is that his vision always prevails, and there’s no mistaking it when you see it.

“Dawoud Bey: Picturing People,” May 13-June 24, 2012, Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Cobb Hall, 5811 South Ellis, Chicago, Ill.

PEDRO VÉLEZ is an art critic and writer working in Chicago.