February 22, 2010

Photographer commissioned to create public art

Dawoud Bey

Earlier this month photographer Dawoud Bey came to campus for the opening of “Class Pictures,” his exhibition of poignant portraits of high school students, on view at the Visual Arts Gallery through March 4. This exhibition has traveled to prominent venues across the United States for the past two years, and its presence at Emory has catalyzed an ambitious collaboration between the Visual Arts Department and the Transforming Community Project (TCP).

Bey will spend a month at Emory this semester photographing widely around its campuses, creating portraits that reflect the diversity of the University community.  Commissioning Bey to create a public artwork for Emory celebrates the culmination of TCP’s five-year exploration of Emory’s historic and current experiences of race, gender, sexuality and other forms of human difference, and will signal the start of their next phase of development in the life of the University.

Bey’s residency will consist of two visits to campus, in March and May.  His intention is to make a series of double portraits in which he brings together two people from different stations within the University community.  Bey conceives of the process of photography itself as an occasion for exploration and discovery, in which new and surprising understandings can emerge from the meetings he inaugurates.

Bey acknowledges that one of his biggest challenges will be selecting a limited number of campus representatives from among the vast demographic that comprises the University and health care systems. That challenge is where the project comes to life for him.

“I’m a bit of a subversive when it comes to choosing subjects and making pairings,” he admits with a smile.  “I’m interested in people you don’t usually see in the university’s public profile, in celebrating the uncelebrated, in bringing people together who might not normally interact to see what happens. That’s where it gets interesting for me — where the presumptions about who people are disappear and a richer description comes out in the photographs.”

A Chicago-based artist with an international reputation, Bey has photographs in the collections of major institutions worldwide and has had his work exhibited at, among others, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Portrait Gallery in London. The body of work he creates at Emory will become a part of the University’s public art collection.

“My ultimate goal is for the project to be installed permanently in a prominent location on campus,” says Jason Francisco, chair of the Visual Arts Department.  “The photographs stand to make an important contribution to Emory’s vision of itself. The challenge they hold before us is precisely Bey’s sympathetic receptivity and the possibility of our own humanistic response.”

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