Dawoud Bey, award-winning photographer and professor of photography at Columbia College Chicago, was one of five African-Americans recently named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow.
Commonly referred to as a “genius award,” the fellowship comes with a quarterly stipend starting in 2018.
“I’ve known a number of MacArthur Fellows in the past, and I can definitely say that there are few, if any, “geniuses” among them, since genius implies someone born with prodigious capacities already embedded in their DNA, and who–for example–write major symphonies when they are 10 years old,” Bey, 63, wrote in an email to the AFRO. “I’ve never thought of the fellowship as a “genius” award.”
Bey already had plans to go on sabbatical from teaching at Columbia, a position he has held for 19 years, but now has a “cushion” that will let his stay focused, he says.
“Dividing my time between my teaching and my own art practice is the primary challenge that I have had to address,” Bey said. “I have a lot more ideas for work and projects than I generally have time to pursue. This will change that.”
One project Bey is already pursuing is Station, a work of history about Ohio’s Underground Railroad.
“At this point I have become much more interested in history, and the ways in which history–in relation to the Black subject–can be invoked in the contemporary moment,” Bey said. “So that is my focus going forward.”
Station is scheduled to debut through FRONT International, a Cleveland contemporary art triennial in July, 2018. It will be his third such project.
“My photographs look the way they do because there is something that I feel about the things I make work about that I want to provoke the viewer to think about as well,” Bey said when asked about his perspective. “I want that thinking to be shaped by my own subjectivities. The viewer, of course, brings his or her own subjectivities to the work as well, but they initially engage the work through my subjective ideas about the subject.”
Bey sees every art object as an act of sharing perspective but explained the unique power of photography.
“Photographs, because of their ubiquity within our social culture, have the ability to make a more compelling case, since people still tend to believe what they see in a photograph,” Bey said. “So when I make a photograph of a person or place in a particular way, I try to do it in a way that is evocative and compelling enough that the viewer almost intuitively believes it.”
One of Bey’s first projects, Harlem, U.S.A, was a series of photos taken from 1975 to 1979. He completed The Birmingham Project in 2013, a commemoration of the six lives lost in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Bey photographed contemporary residents of Birmingham, Ala. His subjects were children as old as the murdered girls and adults that the viewer is invited to imagine were as old as the victims could have grown up to be.
“I came of age in the late 1960s/early 1970s in what was a tumultuous moment in American history,” Bey said. “We are certainly in another moment of social upheaval. Moments like this require everyone to be engaged, and to figure out how they can speak back to power and form social bridges in whatever arena they are functioning in. And that includes artists of course.”
With the rise again of White nationalism, Bey was asked about his concerns about a renewed campaign against so-called “degenerate” art.
“If you’re a citizen of this country, your passport says that you live in the United States of America; it doesn’t say that you live in The Art World,” Bey said. “And the responsibilities of citizenship do not end because you are an artist. So artists need to always be mindful to find ways to bring the larger public into the work that they do, so that they have a level of familiarity with us, and so that their relationship to us is one that we define, not one that is defined and exploited by others. And now that we are in yet another moment of rampant conservatism, this becomes imperative yet again.”