"The Birmingham Project" By: Dawoud Bey

Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Chicago

On holidays like today, it’s sometimes mysterious how people celebrate. The train was empty at its usual rush hour. There were three lone commuters that joined me in my car. The FedEx guy smiles when he sees you in the office and divulges that no one else is. You offer a wry smile. His load will double tomorrow, he informs you as he wishes you the best on this slow day.

I like these holidays because during this time you are reminded of history. And this holiday serves as a reminder that things were really bad. That it was one man’s dream that changed things. That’s it: One. Single. Dream. and the leadership, courage, and affinity for that dream.

Last week I put on an extra layer (even though I am currently wearing flats), as every Chicagoan will tell you is necessary during January’s cold spell, and in an attempt to break free from my drudge—my funk—I opted to go someplace inspiring: some place with color, some place bright. That for me was The Art Institute of Chicago. It’s so easy to trap your mind into thinking that “it’s just the way it is” and art challenges that by folding up a rug and putting it on the wall, or hanging filaments from the ceiling.

When you go to a museum that you have been to several times, it’s easy to gloss over the photography, murals, and abstract pieces, but this time, I went down the stairs and there I saw a picture—a photograph of two men down the hall. It was a diptych. Diptychs are a type of photography where two photographs are placed next to each other either horizontally or vertically to create a greater meaning and to tell a story.

I walked down the hallway, taking in the other black and white photography, but none compared to the diptych. And there, framed, singly on the massive white wall I read “Dawoud Bey: “The Birmingham Project””. The two men were in church. They weren’t smiling. They didn’t invite conversation. The boy looked agitated. He looked like a) he didn’t want to talk to you and b) he didn’t like that you were starring. His counterpart only looked a degree more inviting than the slouched boy.

Who I was staring at was a boy who was tragically killed in the September 15, 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Bey photographed children that represented those killed in the church bombing. To complete the diptych, Bey photographed an older version of the child to demonstrate how old he would be today. It was brilliant, it was profound. It was truth as I had never experienced it before. It’s easy to say a child died and recognize that it is tragic, but it is significantly harder to take your eyes away from what was and what could have been when they are starring right at you.

Go, see it in person. But for those who don’t have the opportunity it’s pictured below.

“The Birmingham Project” By: Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey’s exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago ends this Sunday, January 25, 2015. Chicago residents receive free admission on Thursday nights from 5 pm – 8 pm. At the ticket booth, the attendant will just ask you for your zip code. If you are looking for a way to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., the Art Institute is also open until 5 pm today.

The Art Institute is located at 111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60603 and is easily accessible by all CTA trains at the Adams/Wabash stop or at the Jackson stop for red line and blue line.

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