What happens in Birmingham, Ala., is a microcosm of the United States — both good and bad — and in 1963, that microcosm was almost unfathomable: White racists planted bombs at an African-American church, killing four African-American girls and wounding scores of others. The killers were unrepentant, and two of them were arrested and jailed only in the past 15 years. The dynamiting of the 16th Street Baptist Church helped galvanize landmark civil rights laws. On a micro level, images of the tragedy and its aftermath — including racial violence in Birmingham that killed two black boys — had a profound impact on a child, Dawoud Bey, who has grown up to become an academic and photographer of note. Only recently has Bey come to terms with the Birmingham tragedy. Only recently has Bey revisited the scene of bloodshed and taken what can be called "survivor photographs."
Bey's images, on display at Rena Bransten Gallery in downtown San Francisco, let us stare into the eyes of eyewitnesses to history. The black boys and girls who posed for Bey are the same age as the children who lost their lives in 1963. The black men and women who sat for Bey are the same age those murdered kids would be if they'd survived the bombing and its aftermath: What could have been; what is. Grouped under the title "The Birmingham Project," the photos offer evidence of a post-racial America since one of Bey's photographic locations, the Birmingham Museum of Art, was a segregated institution in the early 1960s — only allowing African-American visitors on "Negro Day," which was every Tuesday.
A single photo begat Bey's series. In 1964, Bey, who was then 11 years old, read the book The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality, which featured an image of 12-year-old Sarah Collins, who was badly injured in the Birmingham bombings. The now-iconic photo by photojournalist Frank Dandridge showed Collins in a hospital bed, white patches over her badly damaged eyes. Collins' 14-year-old sister, Addie Mae Collins, was killed in the blasts. Sarah Collins would lose her right eye. "Everything changed for me at that moment," Bey has said of seeing Franklin's photo, "and it has taken all of these years since to craft a response to the ground-shifting trauma of seeing that picture."
Bey, a faculty member at Columbia College Chicago, who grew up in New York, made many trips to Birmingham to orchestrate his series. The people he photographed, like Cassandra Griffin (who's a civil-rights photographer) and Mathis Manafee (who's a cute kid), convey a wide range of emotions, from pride and joy to defiance and determination. As residents of Birmingham, they surely know what the Southern Poverty Law Center notes in official reports: At least six Ku Klux Klan groups are active in Alabama, including the United Klans of America in Birmingham itself. "The past is never dead," William Faulkner once wrote. "It's not even past." Bey's photos tug at the past without getting stuck there. By shooting in crisp shades of black and white, Bey gives his subjects an emphatic timelessness. Besides the Rena Bransten Gallery, "The Birmingham Project" is on exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art, which is just a short walk from the site of the Sept. 15, 1963, bombings. In San Francisco, Bey's work makes the tragedy's 50th anniversary seem much more tangible. It's photography as a fulcrum, letting us consider an old racial flashpoint in an entirely new way.
Like Dawoud Bey, Xiaoze Xie is both a historian and a damn good visual artist. With "Xiaoze Xie: Transience" at Gallery Paule Anglim, Xiaoze continues his series of book paintings — canvases of important reads that he's drawn over the years, which show the pages and spines all aglow with ethereal light. But it's a 12-minute video that's the tour de force of this exhibit. In the work, titled Transience, Xiaoze — who's a professor of art and art history at Stanford University — captures the slow-motion flight of books that've been tossed into the air. These aren't "ordinary" books, but books that — in Xiaoze's native China and other countries — have been considered threats over the years. Pages about Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, and other radical thinkers spin around and around against a black, otherworldly surface as exquisite stringed music plays in the background. The tomes fly up as if from a trampoline, then twirl around as if in a washing machine. Edges of pages get torn away. Light and darkness overlap in a cycle of agitation and meditation. It's the best 12 minutes you'll spend in a gallery this month.
Using bottle caps, cigarette lighters, house knives, some uncommon objects, and an active imagination, Lucien Shapiro has created a series of masks — and a mammoth mannequin — that are alluring talismans in "Lucien Shapiro: Vessel." Shapiro's works at Guerrero Gallery are designed to help people — through rituals — overcome obstacles in their lives. Of particular note is Warrior Within, a large mannequin with sharp knives, medicine bottles, and a potpourri of other items (including a snowshoe) hanging from its limbs; and The Light Collector Mask (Lumen Collector Larva), which features antlers and metled candles. With Shapiro's new works, function and form coalesce in a wild, wild way.