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Souls of lay folk

Upon stepping through the glass doors, one is greeted by a single word, “black.”—in lower-case, not taunting or privileging any definitive blackness. And yet, the title bears a period; it’s a statement. Duke senior Evan Nicole Bell is in the tradition of María Varela, organizer and photographer for SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) in Selma; of Frank Espada, photojournalist for Puerto Rican activism in the late 70s to early 80s; of Moneta Sleet Jr., the Pulitzer-Prize winner who famously captured a grieving Coretta, and countless others. Bell’s exhibit however marks a crucial turn in her predecessors, namely in her emphasis on the “everyday spaces” of black people. Her lens is not on the pantheon of black heroines and heroes, but rather, on the working-class folk that celebrate, and struggle, their blackness. 

And yet, Bell’s piece takes its point of departure from the Civil Rights Movement, her opening photograph titled, “Continuing the Fight.” In the picture, a woman with cropped hair holds a large poster of the young Rosa Parks, gingerly smiling to the camera, a tacit approval of the current generations. The occasion: a Fight for $15 National Day of Action in Raleigh. Bell’s juxtaposition of this unnamed protestor, coupled with artwork’s topic of fair wages, is perhaps a nod to the March of Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The artist reminds us that black life, in all its reverberations, must have access to equal opportunity. 

Out of the 22 photos that encircle the viewer, just two more touch on overtly political themes. And that remaining pair, interestingly enough, are also about the Fight for $15. While some may call this repetitive, I argue that Bell is insisting on foregrounding a grassroots politics for blacks, one that implicitly critiques the elitist trappings of the Civil Rights Movement. The second Fight for $15 photo, titled “In Protest,” is of a man who, as she writes, “holds a sign as he listens to a speech.” Such wording is key, as again, it magnifies the agency of those individuals that are kept of the Camera Lens of History, literally written off as interchangeable, or “not as significant as…[insert leader].” Everything about this man–from his golden Ecko jacket, to the loosely-fit jeans, to his pensive profile—are monumental too. 

But what of the podium, the microphone that only a handful of revered leaders have wielded to inspire, to indict, to keep accountable? Bell’s third and final Fight photo is of a man, not suited up, but rocking a red beanie, t-shirt and jeans. And the revered leader? That would be Reverend William Barber, seen, donning a royal purple, leaning on his cane as if to bear the weight of this concerned citizen’s truth. And behind all of them, a giant banner with the words, “WE WONT BACK DOWN.”

But I would do Bell a disservice if I ended my commentary on the political. These three ‘pillars,’ as I call them, act as a necessary re-shifting of the constellation of black life. That is, before she delved into any other aspects, it was imperative for her to de-center the typical ‘stars,’ so to speak. Hence, all three of these photos were found in the first half of her exhibit. They set the tone for a celebratory blackness, not apolitical, nor vacuous of concerns for organizing, but rather appreciative of the so-called “ordinary.” 

And what’s the result of this cosmic re-ordering? The space to exhibit a stunning array of the actors: small business owners, dancers, fraternities and sororities a.k.a., the “Divine Nine,” weeping churchgoers, jubilant school-children, marching band, thespians, street graffiti. Together, they are an homage to the unsung labor, but not in the capitalist sense, but of cultural, social, and emotional value. 

Take for instance the piece, “A Man and His Barber.” Here, Bell intimates a gentle masculinity, but one still rooted in traditional landscapes of black male life. The customer, Gerhard Stevens, is seen closing his eyes, head downward in a votive stance to the barber’s behind-the-ear trimmings. A softness exudes between men, one founded on Bell’s patient eyes. An, in an era where "Moonlight" and other films put forth the lives of black queer men into the mainstream, Bell is further challenging and nuancing the socialities of presumably straight, cis black men. 

We transition to displays of artistic poses, adding “Black Excellence” not just as popular nomenclature, but a vivid, quotidinal element of black life. Bell’s “Nyla Elise,” shows a man wearing a blue t-shirt, with the insignia of the black power fist smack-center. He is stoic, hands behind his back, facing away from the camera. Such an image of a fit, young black man pushes back at stereotypes of black fatherhood as truant. On the contrary, we bear witness to a multi-talented businessman who maintains economic self-sufficiency as a bedrock. But far from cold accumulation of wealth, he turns his love into vibrant merchandise. 

Bell’s “Marching Band” echoes the music video of Beyonce’s “Formation,” especially in the brief shots of New Orleans parades. This similarity in turn reveals a shared approach from these two black female artists—to enumerate the multiplicities of black performance: to splice cinematic clippings of histories so as if to democratize their worth. This theme explains the subsequent pieces, “Dancers,” “Steppin,’ “The Wiz” and even of “The Holy Spirit.” A short note on the latter two pictures: Bell’s juxtaposition of a congregation, and open-arms "Scarecrow” succinctly show the spectrum of black fervor, thus blurring the lines between religious and secular life.

Maybe what follows betrays my own preferences, but Bell’s“Behind the Wheel,” and “Childhood” are the most memorable additions to the exhibit. Bell fixes on one of the most overlooked segments of black life: kids. What awaits our eyes isn’t despair however, but a jovial girl, eagerly awaiting the instructions of her teacher. The accompanying plaque explains that she’s in a Title I school, a sober reminder to the viewer that a thin safety net is beneath toddlers’ feet. That in the midst of this adorable face, structural disadvantages surround her. Bell’s placement of this picture in the last five leaves us a final commentary: all of the work of aforementioned figures is in part to nourish her unabashed happiness, for her never to lose it.

In sum, Evan Bell’s tour de force articulates a blackness that heals, celebrates, and resists. It runs the gamut of ‘lay-hero(in)ss,’ unsung individuals who protest, trim, cook, dance, march, slide, pray, gossip, sing—in a word, “perform,” a community-oriented vision of Durham. As Black History Month approaches, while it’s critical to memorialize leaders across the black freedom struggle, equally empowering is elevating the stewards of our era. To put the spotlight on activists whose documentary work takes place not even holding a camera. Such an inside-look in the way an activist sees the world is a blessing, for it injects in us a radical, invigorating perspective. It is my humble hope that this tribute to our talented photographer encourages more conversations on the impact of millennial activists like herself. I hope reviews like these motivate the latter to keep cultivating their work. 

As any audience to a probate knows, “I see you!”

Antonio Lopez graduated from Duke in 2016.


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