Remembering the past, challenging the future
Photographer commenorates Birmingham church bombing with new art exhibition
Fifty years ago four little girls were killed by a bomb in a Birmingham church. Fifty years ago, two young boys, Johnny Robinson, 16, and Virgil Ware, 13, were killed in violent aftermath of that bombing. Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent his letter from a Birmingham jail.
To commemorate that grave year, the Birmingham Museum of Art commissioned the creation of Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project — a suite of 16 large-scale black and white photographic diptych portraits of 32 Birmingham girls, women, boys, and men, and a video. Born in New York, Bey is a photographer and a professor of art and a distinguished college artist at Columbia College Chicago.
Describing his latest work, Bey said: “The Birmingham Project” is my memorial to those six young lives lost 50 years ago, and a tribute to those who were in Birmingham at that difficult moment and those who have been born since. It also bears witness to Birmingham’s current African American population who are the subjects of the photographs. This project asks that we consider the past through the present moment. The exhibition opens at a moment when our nation is again experiencing the trauma resulting from the killing of yet another Black child. Sadly, it is a moment when again no one has yet been convicted for the murder of that child.”
According to the exhibition’s catalog, Bey worked exclusively with subjects from the Birmingham community. He photographed over 75 people, girls and boys the same ages (11, 13, 14 and 16) as the adolescents who lost their lives the day of the Birmingham church bombing, as well as men and women 50 years older, the ages those young people would be in 2013 had they lived.
The catalog reports: “Bey instructed each sitter to look directly into the camera lens, and their gazes are now directed at the viewer. We experience the sensation of looking and being looked at, which initiates a kind of tacit dialogue with Bey’s subjects, an impulse to engage and respond. In an interview Bey stated, “Black people have been killed for directing their gaze at the wrong person. I want my subjects to reclaim their right to look, to see and be seen.’”