After nearly four years of documenting the Black community of Durham, Duke University senior and Alice M. Baldwin Scholar Evan Nicole Bell has secured her first solo photography exhibition entitled “black.” Hosted by the Louise B. Jones Brown Gallery in Durham, "black." is a collection documented by Bell that showcases the diversity of what it means to be Black in 2018.
Bell’s documentary journey started in 2015 during her sophomore year when she began collaborating with Alex Harris, co-founder for the Center of Documentary Studies at Duke. Harris served as an adviser and mentor in addition to his role as professor to Bell, and the pair worked together to aid Bell in her journey documenting the Black population of Durham.
Bell explained that she conceptualized the project after taking issue with a documentary that depicted Durham’s Black community as violent, impoverished and drug-ridden. Disagreeing with the documentary’s portrayal of Durham, Bell began photographing elements of Black culture within the city.
After considering which venues would be most beneficial to highlighting Durham’s diverse Black demographics, Bell decided to focus on areas where she felt that Black people congregate in central social spaces. Places such as barber shops, churches, restaurants and Black-owned businesses are common sites that Bell chose to incorporate into her exhibition of 23 photographs hand-picked out of thousands she had taken over the past four years.
Tracy Legrand-Bell, Bell’s mother, played a large role in helping her select the final prints to be featured in “black.” Having invested a large amount of time analyzing the photos with her daughter, Legrand-Bell offered insight into the collection’s significance.
“It’s everyday photographs of things that we see right in front of us that we just might not take note of,” Legrand-Bell said. “For many Black people, it could become just like breathing. It’s just what we see everyday. For people not of color, it could be things they see everyday, but they haven’t paid much attention to.”
Bell’s experiences while documenting the Black community in Durham exposed her to the importance of building relationships with the individuals she was photographing. For her, the photographs represent just a small fraction of the entire documentary process.
“You get to talk to people, you get to know them and get to know their stories, and through that my project took on a whole new space,” Bell said. “It started becoming less led by me, and I wasn’t telling the story anymore. I was learning the story myself.”
Being an out-of-state student presented multiple challenges for Bell, such as lack of transportation, but her detached perspective from the Durham area proved to be beneficial for overcoming any personal biases she held.
“I’m a Black woman from Columbia, Maryland,” Bell said. “I’m not from Durham, and I’m not the spokesperson, nor do I think that I should be, of what Black life in Durham is. I was there to sit back and learn, so that’s why I say 80 percent of the work takes place when the camera is not on.”
Though the process was tedious and Bell faced numerous road blocks along the way, she has proven to be a valuable asset to Duke University and the programs she has invested in.
Colleen Scott, director of the Baldwin Scholars program that Bell is a member of, shared how Bell’s abilities span beyond photography.
“She is a gifted storyteller and artist,” Scott said. “She deeply understands intersectionality, how social constructs like race, gender, and class impact one’s experiences. Evan is committed to using her voice and talents for public service.”
Joyce Er, co-chair of the Duke University Union Visual Arts Committee, described Bell’s contributions to Duke and to Durham.
“The theme of Evan’s work can only be described as current and relevant to Duke students and to the present political climate,” Er said. “Her careful portrayal of intimate and triumphant moments in Black lives, at Duke as well as in Durham, resonates widely with our peers at Duke and has already garnered excellent footfall and substantial interest online. Student artists like her fulfill our stated mission of making the visual arts accessible to Duke students in their daily lives, and redefine the Brown Gallery and the function of art in the eyes of our peers.”
Chris Sims, undergraduate education director at the Center for Documentary Studies, said he helped administer the funding that provided Bell the opportunity to work with Harris on the project. He explained that Bell has created a notable exhibit that embodies many elements that the Duke Center for Documentary Studies always strives to work toward in a project.
“Through extensive fieldwork, she has created a wide-ranging photographic series that shows both personal insight and self-discovery, but also connects to the some of the vital issues of our time,” Sims said.
The photography medium that Bell chose offered a unique perspective to showcasing various aspects of Durham’s Black culture. Bell’s exhibition strongly reflects her passion for photography and how visual art can encourage social change.
“I think images are one of the most powerful tools we have for social change," Bell said. “It’s always been my mission to use my camera as a tool and weapon for social change. That’s something that I have always felt very strongly about. There’s a certain connection that a human being can make with a still image that you can’t make with words or with moving images.”
The gallery is on display from Jan. 15 to Feb 5. There will be a catered reception for Bell’s exhibition hosted by DUU VisArts on Wednesday, Jan. 24 from 7-9 p.m.
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