Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Dawoud Bey, and Trevor Paglen are among the 24 individuals chosen as 2017 fellows of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which announced the names today. The fellowship, more commonly known as the “genius” grant, recognizes individuals who have “shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Each winner also receives awards of $625,000, paid out over five years, “as an investment in their potential.”
At 34, Crosby, a Nigerian-born painter based in Los Angeles, is one of the youngest of this year’s recipients. Her colorful, heavily patterned work explores postcolonial and immigrant spaces; much more than just paintings, they are careful collages that incorporate photographic transfers, some of which are images she captured herself. She also often embeds her canvas with pictures of herself and her family, yielding scenes that are densely layered not only with material but with personal memories and complex experiences.
Similarly, Chicago-based photographer and educator Dawoud Bey largely focuses on marginalized communities through his portraits, shot over a four-decade long career. Since his benchmark series “Harlem, USA” (1975), which highlighted the lives of the neighborhood’s residents, he has sought to commemorate and record everyday heroes, such as in “Class Pictures,” his 15-year project to photograph high school students. Bey is currently working on a new series in Cleveland, and is this time eyeing the landscape to bring out its histories as a player in the system of the Underground Railroad.
A Couple At A Bus Stop, Rochester, NY 1989. I spent one month in Rochester doing a residency at The Visual Studies Workshop which found me getting up every morning with my 4×5 camera, tripod, Polaroid Type 55 film and a messy bucket of sodium sulfite solution to photograph African Americans in the streets of that city. I saw these two young people at a bus stop on Main Street, and asked if I could photograph them together, as I had an idea for a “couple” picture, but no real couple to photograph. I met Nathan Lyons, the founder of VSW, during that residency. Nate passed always recently, and the photography community gathered last weekend to pay him tribute. I dedicate this photograph to Nathan Lyons, one of the most brilliant people the field of photography has yet produced.
Paglen’s work, on the other hand, rarely features human subjects but comments on the hidden infrastructures that act as eyes, ears, and other nodes of understanding for people in positions of power. Mass surveillance has been his focus for years, with the artist-geographer exploring issues with state security and encroachment of privacy by looking at hidden infrastructure on earth, in the sky, and deep at the bottom of the sea. This fall, he takes on outer space with the launch of his The Last Pictures project, an archival disc of photographs that will be affixed to a communications satellite to orbit the world — ideally, for billions of years to come.
The three represent the visual arts in this year’s class of fellows, adding to the already very long roster of painters, sculptors, photographers, and other creatives. Joining them as well are other innovators including landscape Kate Orff, playwright Annie Baker, and urban planner Damon Rich. A full list of recipients can be found here.