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To Be Young, Targeted and Black

Mike Newton Dec 17, 2012

“Black + Male: Post Obama”
Siyaka Taylor-Lewis
Brecht Forum
451 West St.
Through January 30

When Trayvon Martin was murdered last February, the story struck a deep, nation-wide chord, partly because of how immediately relatable Martin’s situation was. He was yet another young, Black man whose life was cut short, with the police (initially) treating it all as a simple matter of course — as if it were Martin’s fault for having existed at all. Trayvon’s case makes its presence felt in “Black + Male: Post Obama,” a photo/audio project by Siyaka Taylor-Lewis at the Brecht Forum. In one photo, we see a hooded figure rising through a blurred, anonymous city street, and Taylor-Lewis tells us through accompanying text that he sometimes fears for his safety while walking at night. As a young, Black man, he fits “the description” you see. Is the photo a self-portrait? We don’t know; Taylor-Lewis’ point is that it could be. In the show’s best image, two young Black men are caught in the harsh glare of a police car’s headlights, subjected to a routine stop-and-frisk. The photo is framed dynamically through panes and planks — it happened outside
Taylor-Lewis’ window.

Other photo subjects include professors, fathers, old friends, homeless men, protesters, artists and drug dealers. Taylor-Lewis was trained in traditional darkroom techniques, and it shows. The images here are made with rich tones and luminous contrasts (appropriately, the photos are all in black and white). At its best, his work recalls classic photojournalism and mid-century, socially-engaged art photography; it’s an approach that’s a bit at odds with the unmistakably digital-era audio, in which Taylor-Lewis puts his subjects’ statements on race and racism against languid, lounge-y beats.

This is an exhibit about the Obama era, but the concerns at work here have wracked Black communities for generations: poverty, isolation, drugs, police aggression and, above all else, institutional racism. The exhibit serves as a highly personal rejoinder to those pundits who insist that Obama’s ascendancy has obviated American racism (as if two election victories and four years in office were enough to erase centuries of violence). Not all of these photos work — some of the images veer uncomfortably close to snapshot territory. But, even in a less-considered mode, the day-in, day-out familiarity of these pictures helps underscore Taylor-Lewis’ major point: that for many Americans, actions that seem mundane  — like raising children, working a job, living to an old age, going to a New Year’s party or even just walking down the street — become, at some level, an act of resistance or struggle. Or, as one of Taylor-Lewis’s subjects put it: “Being a Black man in America is like always having to watch your back, even when you’re at home.”

On Jan. 25, Brecht Forum will hold a benefit auction of
Siyaka Taylor-Lewis’ photos. Taylor-Lewis was injured in a fire earlier this year.

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