It's not often that a craving for dim sum ends up landing your portrait in a major museum exhibit. But for Kali-Ahset Amen, that's exactly what happened three years ago after she took her two children to their favorite Chinese restaurant in Atlanta.
"I was treating Xiomara, who is 7, and Joshua, my 2-year-old, to a little Asian-fusion place near the university," says the 37-year-old mom, who is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Emory University. "As we were walking to our table, a woman approached me and asked me if I would be interested in sitting for photographer Dawoud Bey, who was also dining at the restaurant. She led me to his table, and an assistant snapped a cell-phone picture of me and said they would be in touch later."
That initial contact resulted in the unusual double portrait of Amen sitting next to a Buddhist monk, a striking photo that's part of "Dawoud Bey: Picturing People," a major career survey of the Chicago-based photographer's work spanning more than three decades, on view now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami.
Amen's photo, taken alongside Geshe Ngawang Phende, a visiting Buddhist monk at Atlanta's Drepung Loseling Monastery, comes from Bey's most recent series, Strangers/Community (2010-present). In eight large-format color portraits snapped in Chicago and Atlanta, the artist casts two individuals unknown to each other from the same sociogeographic community to highlight their differences and question notions of community.
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That series is one of six at MOCA, ranging from street photographs taken in Harlem during the '80s to Bey's Polaroid 20-by-24-inch multipanel group portraits shot during the '90s. Also on view are several works from Bey's Class Pictures (2002-2006), for which the artist traveled across the country to photograph high-school students in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Orlando, and San Francisco. The images are accompanied by biographical text written by his subjects.
Together, the 51 works -- focused mostly on African-Americans and youngsters -- present a soulful look at ordinary folks from all walks of life in contemporary society and the remarkable humanism with which Bey captures his subjects.