Our political moment has necessitated a reexamination of the history of racialized violence and political resistance in the United States. “Birmingham, Alabama, 1963: Dawoud Bey/Black Star” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography creates a powerful visual starting point for this reflection. Curated by Dr. Gaëlle Morel, who originally staged the show at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto, the exhibition places two projects by Dawoud Bey in conversation with selections from the Black Star archive that is housed at the Ryerson.
The exhibition is sparse, which makes room for close examination of the images and creates a sense of reverence in the space. The first of Bey’s projects is the 2012 photo series “Birmingham, Alabama, 1963.” It is a series of portrait diptychs. Each diptych is made up of photos of African Americans, a young person and an older person. The subjects are stand-ins for the children who died in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church and in the uprising that followed. The younger person pictured is the age of the murdered adolescents and their elder companions are the age the victims would be today if they had been allowed to live. The portraits are in Bey’s particular style, the poses and direct views are familiar and deeply affective. The pairs are placed in similar positions and resemble each other in their features and expressions. One gets the impression of a present and future self. This potential brings home what was lost in the deaths of those young people that autumn in Birmingham.
These photos line the walls of the two main galleries on the first floor. On both sides of the wall separating the two spaces are the archival materials from the Black Star Collection. These include framed photographs of the 16th Street Baptist Church at the time of the bombing, protest following the terrorist act and civil rights demonstrations from May 3 of that year. The photos of the May protest include some of the best-known images from the civil rights struggle, those of police setting dogs on people and torturing them with high-velocity water hoses. Alongside these are wall-mounted vitrines displaying photo essays in popular magazines that used these images to make the general public aware of the struggles of those fighting for their rights and those determined to oppress them.
In the small side gallery on the first floor, the museum exhibits Bey’s eleven-minute single-channel video, “9.15.63.” Made in 2013, the video deals with the same themes as the photo series and is also presented as a diptych. On one side of the screen, the camera slowly roams over the details of the places that make up day-to-day life: beauty shops, elementary school classrooms, diners, barbershops. Locations that were segregated in Alabama in 1963, locations that were highly contested sites of struggle during the civil rights movement. On the other half of the screen a clear blue sky, leafy trees and the tips of houses drift by. The view is like what a child might see while looking at the sky from the back seat of a car. As the video comes to a close, the sign for the 16th Street Church is seen.
An exhibit of work by two Chicago photographers, Carlos Javier Ortiz and David Schalliol, occupies the museum’s top two floors. Work by artists in “Chicago Stories” consider the impact of systemic racism on African American communities on Chicago’s South Side. Schalliol focuses on community displacement while Ortiz looks at the people who make up these communities, which formed through the Great Migration, and their struggles, including gun violence. These two projects make powerfl counterpoint to the historic nature of the first-floor exhibit.