Is what you see really me? Bey collaborates with high school students to bring form to their identities and imagesBy Seth Sanders
Bey’s 12 large, lucid photos of Chicago high school students are presented with excerpts from interviews with the students by Collison and Meister, whose Long Haul Productions specializes in radio and video documentaries about people and places often overlooked by mainstream media. In the next room, viewers can compare “Dawoud Bey: The Chicago Project” with “Group Portrait,” an exhibition students curated with guidance from Bey, curator Stephanie Smith and education director Jacqueline Terrassa. The students’ work is on display through Sunday, June 15, and at the Web site, http://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu/chicagoproject.
In putting together the multifaceted “Chicago Project” with the 12 Chicago high school students, Bey asked them, “Is it possible for a photographic portrait to reveal anything ‘real’ about you or someone else? What aspects of yourself are you willing to share with the world, and how do others respond to these self-presentations?” Over the course of a 12-week artist residency that began in November 2002, the students worked with Bey and other collaborators on these questions of identity and photographic representation.
The students represent a broad, self-selected swath of South Side high schoolers from South Shore, Kenwood, and the University Laboratory high schools. “The students who participated responded to an open call at their schools,” said Bey. “We had a contact teacher at each school who helped us get the word out about the project.”
Smith talked about the way the “very different educational cultures at these schools” came out in art. “The initial meetings were very discussion-heavy, which replicated a kind of educational culture that the students from Lab School were most familiar with–you sit around and talk about abstract ideas. Really a lot like the culture of the University.
“But in the second half of the project, when we started doing more hands-on activities, training the students to curate the Group Portrait exhibition, students who had hung back a bit began to step up and present their ideas. The first day we started working with a pool of images of people from pop culture, magazines and photocopies of fine art photographs from the Smart’s collection. We talked about what happens when you put one picture next to another.”
Chris, from South Shore, used these other portraits to make a self-portrait. “He took images of a rap star, a small boy from Mexico and Oprah and placed them in a pyramid structure. He explained that each tapped into either something in himself or something he wanted to be,” said Smith.
“It was a beautiful arrangement of images and dovetailed well with other things we had been talking about in terms of identity and representation–which pieces of yourself do you choose to put out into the world, under which circumstances?”
Bey photographed each student at his or her school, and Meister and Collison, who have produced award-winning work for National Public Radio, recorded their voices during individual interviews; these composite portraits are featured in the main exhibition. This combination of audio and photography, creative and curatorial work was something new for everyone involved. Bey wrote: “I have been doing projects with young people and museums for 12 years, but this is the first that utilizes multimedia. It adds another layer of description to the representation of the young people who participated in the project.”
Kimerly Rorschach, the Dana Feitler Director of the Smart Museum and Associate Professor in Art History and the College, said, “It’s a project that pushes the envelope of what can be done in an exhibition, but builds on existing strengths of our educational programs, working with students in South Side schools.”
Smith added, “The project was a big collaborative experiment. We wanted to see how we could apply this to future projects at Smart; we’re now thinking about what sorts of teen programs it would make sense for us to instigate longer term. This project provides a catalyst for us to go farther. We’re now convening a panel with educators from other arts institutions with exciting teen programs to talk about what works and what doesn’t.”
For anyone who has grown up or lives on the South Side of Chicago, the project is close to home. What are the teen-agers you see walking down the street thinking? Who are they, really, and what side are they showing you? The subject matter may also be closer to home for Bey. It is the first project he has done in the city in which he lives, and with students his own son and nephew go to school with at the Laboratory Schools.
Bey began his career as a photographer in 1975 with a series of photographs, “Harlem, USA,” which later were exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979 in his first one-person exhibition.
He received his Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale University in 1993, and is currently a professor of photography at Columbia College in Chicago. He has exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Whitney Museum of American Art and at Yale University. Art Gallery.
The National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs have honored Bey with awards. He moved to Hyde Park five years ago with his son and wife, painter Candida Alvarez, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute.