The current photographic exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art Off/Site gallery, entitled Embracing Eatonville (January 20 - March18) features the photographs of Dawoud Bey, Lonnie Graham, Carrie Mae Weems, and Deborah Willis, each of whom attempts to represent (in varying ways) the historic town of Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville is the oldest black incorporated town in the United States, and hometown of renowned writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960). I was immediately drawn to the pigmented ink-jet prints of Dawoud Bey, which present themselves in the form of portraits of high school students in their classrooms, accompanied by a few lines of the student's own verbal self-description.
The photographs, though richly colored and saturated, remain stark in their documentary style shooting and presentation. The verbal statements help to further the subjects' expressive demeanors, although sometimes confusing the viewer by offering two conflicting positions. The self-description that the high school students attribute to themselves is not always reinforced through their actual expressions, which gives the work another layer of meaning that is less about a specific residential spirit and more about traits that are universally human. Even still, the subjects of these portraits serve to represent the future of Eatonville as its most potential-filled residents. Although the subjects of these portraits are specific to the town of Eatonville, I felt that their youthful naivety could transcend geographic location and therefore, I could relate to the subjects without having knowledge of the importance of the town itself. This work alone could represent various towns or cities, but combined with the other three artists contributed to a unique spirit of the Eatonville that I was constructing for myself.
Lonnie Graham's photographs, also pigmented ink-jet prints, contrast Bey's photographs by embodying spontaneity, which for me is then transformed into a certain type of sentimentality. The photographs depict the people of Eatonville during a several day town festival. The photographer includes a range of age groups, depicting Eatonville's present a useful addition to the future that Bey represents. My "imaginary" Eatonville is coming together. Carrie Mae Weems' silver gelatin prints are the only works to directly reference Hurston, offering historical re-enactments of some of the writer's days: jotting down some observations in her notebook, walking beneath willow trees, washing her feet in a basin, among other daily rituals.
I was not immediately interested in Weems' photographs, perhaps because my unfamiliarity with Eatonville's historical roots causes me to reject the town as a historical real place in favor of something that I am able to construct on my own, something more imaginary, immediate, and contemporary. Returning to the medium of pigmented inkjet prints, the photographs of Deborah Willis embody the timelessness of Eatonville, as well as representing social sites and gendered places that maintain historical importance by transforming it. Willis photographs socially charged locales: a high school football field, the view from a preacher's pulpit, and perhaps most notably in this series, the beauty salon. This specific location speaks of a site of female power, which has replaced other gendered spaces of Hurston's era, like the storefront porch which is a social site of male power.
The approach of this exhibit is not an uncommon one: an embodiment of the spirit of a place. The wonderful thing about this type of exhibit is that the viewer can extract the elements of his or her choice to construct his or her own imaginary place with its own personal significance. What's important is the photographic embodiment or encapsulation of the importance of place and home, both real and imagined.
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