TAMPA – An emotional and powerful photographic experience awaits at the Tampa Museum of Art.
Organized by the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the exhibit “Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue” features more than 120 photographs, as well as videos, by two prolific photographers. Bey and Weems met in 1976 in New York City, when Weems took a photography class Bey was teaching. Since then, the two have maintained a friendship and artistic dialogue. While they work independently, their work addresses common themes of race, class, and the representation and experiences of Black Americans.
The exhibit begins with early works from the 1970s and 1980s. Bey’s “Harlem USA” series explores the neighborhood from the perspective of the street, through black-and-white photographs that employ a dramatic use of light taken with a hand-held camera. Weems turns her lens to a variety of subjects, including theatrical self-portraits. With the “Family Pictures and Stories” series, Weems documents her family and includes the narratives she wrote.
In another piece, Weems’ narrative practice in her work culminates in the “Kitchen Table Series,” in which Weems poses at a table as a fictional character, surrounded by friends, lovers, and family. A text she wrote from a woman’s perspective is heartbreaking and empowering. The pictures are just as convincing as they are write Weems narrative drafted.
In the 1980s, Bey was shooting black-and-white Polaroid portraits of young adults and teenagers posing in an urban landscape. Later, he switched to color shooting with a large Polaroid camera in a studio setting.
Both artists made series exploring black history in the U.S. Bey photographed locations in Ohio believed to have been stops on the Underground Railroad in the “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” series. The pictures in black are from the perspective of enslaved people as they made their way to Canada, approaching a safe house in the brush.
Weems explores the Gullah culture of the islands off Georgia and the Carolinas with the Sea Island Series. And with “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Wept,” historical images of enslaved women and men are combined with a narrative that aims to individualize them and condemn their dehumanization.
Another installment sees Bey and Weems tackle horrific events from the 20th century. Bay’s “Birmingham Project” is a memorial to the six African-American children who were murdered in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the murders. He has made powerful portraits of the current residents at the same age as them children and people 50 years older, and paired them in diptychs.
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Weems recreates painful images that have become ubiquitous in “Making History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment.” These acts include the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr he seems to be pointing out that when images of horror circulate so widely, they lose their shock value.
With these series, both artists are paying attention to real people and communities and shifting the focus away from media images of events. Both artists have also made videos on these topics, which are played in the gallery. Take the time to look at them, but know that they are powerful and you may need to take a moment to compose yourself afterwards.
The exhibition closes with landscapes. In “Roaming,” Weems is dressed in a long black dress and poses at historic sites in Rome with her back to the camera, making a statement about how centuries of power dictate culture. Bey returns to Harlem with the “Harlem Redux” series, taking large-scale color photos that capture its gentrification. There are construction sites and empty storefronts and barriers, giving a sense that a place where black people once thrived no longer welcomes them.
If you go
“Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue” is on view through October 23. Dates may change due to construction at the museum. $5-$15, free for children 6 and younger, college students and guests receiving SNAP benefits with presentation of a SNAP Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, who may bring three guests. 10:00am-5:00pm daily except Thursday when hours are 10:00am-8:00pm 813-274-8130. tampamuseum.org.