The Birmingham Museum of Art uses contemporary art to commemorate Civil Rights bombing
By Cate McCusker Boehm
The deaths of six Black Birmingham adolescents on Sept, 15, 1963, and that day’s painful legacy within the community are the genesis and subject of Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project presented by PNC, a suite of 16 large-scale Black and white photographic diptych portraits of 32 Birmingham girls, women, boys, and men, and of the single-channel video, 9.15.63.
As the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham approaches, photographer Dawoud Bey pays homage to some of the youngest victims of the Civil Rights Movement, killed that day: Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14), Virgil Ware (13) and Johnny Robinson (16).
“When I was 11 years old, I saw for the first time the photograph of a wounded Sarah Collins, the surviving sister of Addie Mae Collins. Sarah Collins had also been present at the dynamiting of the church as well, but unlike her sister had survived. I traced the beginnings of this project to seeing that picture. Everything changed for me at that moment, and it has taken all of these years since to craft a response to the ground-shifting trauma of seeing that picture,” explains Bey.
Working with the Museum’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Ron Platt, Bey recruited members of the Birmingham community to sit for the portraits. The subjects represent the ages of the young victims at the time of their deaths, and the ages they would be today, had they lived. He photographed 75 subjects over several months beginning in 2012, at Museum and at Bethel Baptist Church, which was ground zero for Birmingham’s resistance movement. Bey displays the photographs in pairs, the younger subjects with the older, establishing a tangible reality of the lives lost.
“The Birmingham Project is my memorial to those six young lives lost fifty years ago, and a tribute to those who were in Birmingham at that difficult moment and those who have been born since. This project asks that we consider the past through the present moment,” says Bey.
The Birmingham Project is part of a series of contemporary art exhibitions organized by the Birmingham Museum of Art, which memorializes the Civil Rights Movement.
“While the landscape has changed, the Civil Rights Movement is forever engrained in the social and cultural identity of our nation. When addressing such an important, but complex reality, art can serve as a trans-formative channel of communication,” says R. Hugh Daniel Director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, Gail Andrews
The Birmingham Project compliments a community-wide initiative, 50 Years Forward, designed to mark and address the fiftieth anniversary of a pivotal year in American Civil Rights history, 1963, when a series of events drew international focus on Birmingham.
“PNC has a long tradition of providing access to the arts through culturally engaging programs and investing in the communities where we do business.” said Jim Hansen, regional president, PNC Bank, Northern Alabama. “We are pleased to continue this tradition through our partnership with the Birmingham Museum of Art to present Dawoud Bey’s The Birmingham Project. This exhibit is a highlight of our city’s 50 Years Forward movement, and it’s our honor to support this historic year of commemoration.”
Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project presented by PNC will be on display at the Birmingham Museum of Art from Sept. 8 – Dec. 2, 2013.