Their Eyes Tell the Story: Dawoud Bey’s new project sheds light on Birmingham Church, fifty years after the bombing.

Dawoud Bey, The Birmingham Project: Fred Stewart II and Tyler Collins, 2012 Ed. 2/6 Archival pigment prints mounted to dibond 40 x 64 inches Courtesy the Artist and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, California All works Copyright the Artist

By Evan Balikos

On Sept. 15, 1963, members of Birmingham Church in Alabama were shook by a sudden, terrifying attack; a bomb had detonated underneath the church and left in its dust four Black bodies.

These were innocent girls who just happened to be in the most unfortunate place at a most tumultuous time: in a bathroom above hidden dynamite. Following this atrocity, the city of Birmingham (known as ‘Bombingham’, because of the numerous homemade bombs set off by Ku Klux Klan members over time), angrily protested at the scene where some two-hundred people were still being evacuated from the dust-filled destruction.

During these protests, several arrests were made after Alabama Governor George Wallace—who was strongly against desegregation—called upon the brutality and mercilessness of Eugene “Bull” Connor and his police and state troopers to break crowds up by any means necessary.

Through the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. and the people of Birmingham, outrage for the bombing led to the passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights of 1965. The attack became infamous, and fifty years later, Dawoud Bey visited looking to pay homage to the fallen.

“‘Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project’ does not highlight the attack, rather it focuses on the children who died or were injured and the violence that swept the city that day. While many people are familiar with the four little girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing – Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), Cynthia Wesley (14) – not as many people realize two young men were killed that same day. Johnny Robinson (16) and Virgil Ware (13) were murdered because of their race later that day in separate attacks,” said Maryanna Ramirez, Manager of Strategic Initiatives for the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at FIU.

Bey’s project grabs you from the moment you step into it. Printed on the wall in bolded black is a short but poignant overview of the project, detailing the purpose of his photography and the many faces involved in his project. Bey’s portraits represent the ages of the victims when they died, and the ages they would have been if they were still alive.

Additionally, some sitters he photographed were residents during the time of the bombing and some were not. This contrast creates an instant draw to many of the portraits, reading their faces becomes an exercise in understanding human expression.

“Dawoud Bey wanted to cast light on contemporary issues of racial violence and injustice, so he included residents currently living in Birmingham,” said Ramirez. “Bey photographed these residents throughout 2012, during the same time that the Treyvon Martin case was going on and he has stated that he was acutely aware of the issues of racial violence and challenges in the legal system faced by the young people he photographed.”

Many of the portraits convey feelings of sadness, anger, and even despair. A common pattern in the line of portraits is a sitter leaning over a church pew, usually cross-armed and focused on the viewer.

Other sitters lean over the side of wooden chairs creating a sophisticated but personal presentation, such as what would display at a funeral. Viewers walk slowly by each portrait, sometimes glued in place and observing until they can understand what the person is trying to say.

Older sitters communicate a stirring solidarity while younger ones might look confused or even frustrated. Overall, the assortment of solemn portraits defines the Black experience and the many emotions that may clutter minds of Black people in America today, where similar acts of violence like the bombing are still devastatingly popular.

“There have been several news stories that unfortunately continue to show similar events happening in our modern times. On June 17, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, a white supremacist killed nine black parishioners during a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Black Americans face continued racially-based violence today,” said Ramirez.

Upon leaving the exhibit, visitors will see a guest book lit on a podium. Bey gives viewers the valuable chance to provide input about what they experienced and what they thought when they saw the eyes of the many portraits. It is an opportunity to face our past, converse with diverse audience members, and learn and grow as human beings often do.

“It is important for us to engage the student communities in thought-provoking exhibitions that can help to foster important dialogue about current events that affect all of us, and that point towards positive solutions by expressing these issues via art, artists, and the gallery experience at museums,” said Ramirez.   

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