Reflections on Dawoud Bey
Colin Westerbeck, Guest Contributor for Art Muse LA
Before moving to LA I was a curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago. In that capacity, I tried to be especially attuned to local photographers who were doing original, exceptional work. That’s how I first became aware of Dawoud Bey’s photography. Let me provide some of the background on that career and the projects that have led him to his present pre-eminence with the Whitney retrospective in 2021 and the simultaneous exhibitions in Los Angeles this summer: at the Getty Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue (through July 9) and at Sean Kelly gallery Dawoud Bey: Pictures 1976-2019 (through June 30).
That Bey grew up in Queens rather than Harlem gave him a certain impartiality, an open-mindedness, that rewarded him the first time photography attracted his attention. That was in 1969 when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art had on view the controversial exhibition Harlem on My Mind. In front of the Met, African-American activists had been demonstrating against the exhibition, trying to discourage others—especially other African-Americans—from going in to see it because no African-American curators had been involved in creating the exhibition. (Another insult added to injury was that the exhibition’s title had been borrowed from a song by yet another white guy, Irving Berlin.) Bey says he was aware of the controversy over the exhibition but was relieved to see that no demonstrators were at the museum the day he came to see what all the fuss was about.