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Art for Breakfast: Dawoud Bey’s Mgbechi

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Looking at me, it is obvious that I am a young African-American woman. Some may see pride behind the firm position of my lips, others may see that I am a person who is always looking, looking deep into another’s face, another’s actions, always analyzing, thinking, interpreting. Some may even say I’m twelve, fourteen. But nothing, nothing in the world would make me happier than to have someone say to me, at first glance, "You must be from Nigeria, an Igbo gal, an Ngwa gal." I would wish that a person could tell that from the very first glance, could see in my initial "nice to meet you" smile that in my heart of hearts, in my wildest fancies, I am a dancer. This is my identity, it is who I am, what I wish to be, what I love to do. And so, when I become the neurologist, psychologist, philosopher, novelist of my dreams, I know I will always see the things deep inside me that make every success shine brighter, I will see the fountain of beauty that streams behind my every smile, my source of strength, my motivation, my happiness. I thank my parents, my family, my true homeland, for shaping who I am today; I love to dance, I am an Ngwa gal, I am Mgbechi.
—Mgbechi, 2005

See into her soul. The grey light of the classroom bounces off of the desk and softens on the peak of her cheek. It dances across the bridge of her nose and brow, but it does not sink in. Her face retreats to the warm shadows, sinking into the deep hues between her elbows. She speaks to us as if we are listening. She looks at us with trust, melting into our arms and hearts. Her striped blue sleeves cradle her head, elbow coming forward, taking over the pale beige desk. This classroom is her context, she is comfortable here but it does not define her.

Are you surprised by her high school words? She is elegant and strong. In this place, at least, in front of this camera, she owns her space and her words. Here, she controls her image.

Photographers have long been drawn to photographing adolescents, teetering on swollen knees. In this "Class Pictures" series, contemporary photographer Dawoud Bey has completed a series of artists residencies at high schools across the country, taking several weeks to get to know the students and then to have them write a bit of their story and to take their picture. It is tempting to draw a correlation to Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits or Sally Mann’s "At Twelve" series. Bey isn’t looking to expose raw weakness and vulnerability. Instead he seems obsessed with capturing the inner adult, strong and articulate. He doesn’t cast a tint of teenager over the image, but rather allows Mgbechi to inhabit her zone and, by way of comfort, show us her strength.

A portrait is a picture of the human subject. To take that picture is an exchange of trust and authorship. A glimpse into the raw core of a forming identity. Bey talks about searching for psychological nuance, communicating a deeper understanding of self through the picture. But this is a collaboration — a person never presents all of themselves to a camera by accident. Those candid shots are stolen. Instead Bey picks up these most vulnerable and natural gestures over time, watching carefully from a distance. Then, he guides her back to those gestures and she settles into herself, trusting him. She knows that he is listening, and she gives him the picture.

Bey shares authorship with the students, he allows them to step in and have a voice within the portrait. You have something to say, he tells them. And they do. They have big ideas and universal fears ready to pour out on paper. They let us into these inner bits and you are taken aback. You are privileged to read them. The portrait might have just been another stock photograph of a black girl in a classroom. But instead it is Mgbechi and she is an Ngwa gal. Her head is slumped on the table behind protective arms but her eyes are wide and they see right through us into her future.

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Image Information: Dawoud Bey, Mgbechi, 2005
Chromogenic print, 30 x 40″
Class Picture series, courtesy of the artist

 

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About Author

Margaret Rew is the gallery director at Howard Yezerski Gallery by day and fledgling writer by night. She graduated from Tufts University in 2011 with a degree in Art History and Political Science. Her daily art blog, artforbreakfast.org, chronicles the story behind, beneath and within one piece of art every day.

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