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Chicago photographer, community leader win MacArthur ‘genius grants’

Photographer Dawoud Bey, one of the recipients of a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship Award. | SUPPLIED PHOTO

It is the usual eclectic mix of people from across the widest spectrum of disciplines, and it includes artists (a painter, a photographer, a playwright, directors and novelists), as well as a historian, a geographer, a psychologist, an immunologist, a human rights strategist, community leaders, computer scientists and more.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has announced its latest class of MacArthur Fellows, with each of the so-called “genius grant” recipients receiving a total of $625,000 dispersed quarterly over five years “with no strings attached.”

Two of the 24 awardees — photographer Dawoud Bey and community leader Rami Nashasibi — currently live and work in Chicago. Two others — artist-geographer Trevon Paglen and opera director Yuval Sharon — have past Chicago connections.

Community leader Rami Nashashibi is among the 2017 class of MacArthur Fellowship Award winners. | PROVIDED PHOTO
Community leader Rami Nashashibi is among the 2017 class of MacArthur Fellowship Award winners. | PROVIDED PHOTO

Bey, who grew up in Queens, New York, was awakened to photography as a 16-year-old during a visit to “Harlem on My Mind,” the fabled 1969 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where his own work would later be exhibited). With a bachelor’s degree from Empire State College of the State University of New York and a master’s from Yale, he went on to create his own portraits of people, many from marginalized communities, in which he made it a practice to engage his subjects in the shaping of their images for his large-scale, multiple-view works. His goal was also to draw those who viewed these images to consider the larger social presence and histories of his subjects.

Bey expanded on this project in “Class Pictures” (2002–2006), produced in collaboration with young people and institutions throughout the United States. More recently he has focused on the construction of collective history and memory with “The Birmingham Project” (2013), in which he commemorated the lives of six children killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and “Harlem Redux” (2014–2017), in which he focuses on the urban landscape he first chronicled in the 1970s, and its transformation by gentrification.

Bey is a photography professor at Columbia College Chicago, and his work has been seen at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Walker Art Center, the National Portrait Gallery (London) and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Nashashibi , a sociologist, community organizer and executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), works in the diverse working-class neighborhood of Marquette Park, which has struggled with high rates of foreclosure, unemployment and gang violence over the past several decades. He has gained the support of South Side residents, particularly African-American Muslims and Muslim immigrant communities, and devised programs that include a community clinic providing health care services to a largely uninsured and under-insured population, as well as a job training initiative that equips formerly incarcerated individuals with green construction skills through the renovation of foreclosed homes. These programs have become models for others in Atlanta and Los Angeles.

Paglen, who earned his master’s degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and now lives in Berlin, is a conceptual artist whose work was described by the foundation as “documenting the hidden operations of covert government projects, and exploring the ways that human rights are threatened in an era of mass surveillance.” He has developed a method of “limit telephotography” that uses high-power telescopes in combination with cameras to photograph secret prisons and military bases.

Yuval Sharon was born in Chicago but has spent his career in Los Angeles, where, as a director and producer of opera, and founder and artistic director of The Industry, he has focused on “expanding the possibilities of where, when, and how opera can be performed.” His 2013 production “Invisible Cities” (based on the 1972 novel by Italo Calvino in which Marco Polo recounts his adventures) was performed in Los Angeles’ Union Station. His 2015 production “Hopscotch: A Mobile Opera for 24 Cars” was staged in various locations around Los Angeles.

Musician Rhiannon Giddens, named as one of 2017 MacArthur Foundation Fellows. |  PROVIDED PHOTO
Musician Rhiannon Giddens, named as one of 2017 MacArthur Foundation Fellows. | PROVIDED PHOTO

In addition, the work of three other awardees — playwright Annie Baker, theater artist Taylor Mac and singer-songwriter-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens — is more than familiar to Chicago audiences.

South Carolina-born Rhiannon Giddens, whose haunting solo album “Freedom Highway” was released earlier this year, is widely known as the lead singer, violinist, banjo player and founding member of Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Grammy Award-winning country, blues, and old-time music band. An Oberlin Conservatory graduate, Giddens, as cited by the MacArthur, has “mined the history of the African-American string band tradition, introducing new audiences to the black banjoists and fiddlers whose influences have been left out of popular narratives of the lineage of folk and country music.”

Playwright-teacher Annie Baker won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for “The Flick,” her “comedy of the mundane” about the lost souls who work in a run-down movie palace in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was produced by Steppenwolf Theatre in 2016. Her 2009 play “Circle Mirror Transformation,” set in a Vermont community center where an acting teacher leads his “students” through various theater exercises, was produced in Chicago at both Victory Gardens Theater and Redtwist Theatre.

Playwright Annie Baker has been named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow. | SUPPLIED PHOTO
Playwright Annie Baker has been named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow. | SUPPLIED PHOTO

Taylor Mac is widely known for his marathon work “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” (2014-2016) that “reimagines America’s history through a queer lens and explores homophobia, racism and other forms of exclusion,” part of which was performed last year at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. His play “Hir” was produced at Steppenwolf Theatre this past summer.

For a complete list of the winners visit