Quentin Rozier, a high school student from Eatonville, Fla., stares into the eyes of museum gazers from a typical high school desk with an assured assertion: “We might not be rich, but we’re not poor either.”

Drew Philp

Rozier is featured in one of the images in photographer Dawoud Bey’s contribution to “Embracing Eatonville,” a photographic homage to Eatonville, the nation’s first black self-governing town. Assembled in 2003, it features the collections of four contemporary photographers and their rendering of the legendary town.

The exhibit, running now through March 18 at the University of Michigan Museum of Art Off/Site, also serves as a tribute to revered writer Zora Neale Hurston, who lived in the town during much of her adult life.

Bey’s photographs, all in pigmented inkjet print, are of various high school students, each portrait displayed with a corresponding plaque that bears a paragraph they wrote themselves about their personalities, families and aspirations.

“I am intelligent and pretty,” one photo reads. “I am a born leader,” reads another.

Like Bey, Deborah Willis used her collection to present the community of Eatonville, although Willis’s images, also in vivid color, portray an older generation of inhabitants. “Owners of Charlie Jeans” depicts the husband and wife owners of Charlie Jeans and Chicken Wings restaurant, both wearing bold red T-shirts bearing their enterprises’ name. Their hands are clasped, their eyes a bit wary, but their demeanors conveying undeniable poise.

In accordance with the words of Eatonville’s adolescent population in Bey’s contribution, Willis’s photos seem to speak for a humble yet confident existence.

While Bey and Willis focused on the Eatonville residents, Lonnie Graham tempered her photos of the annual Eatonville Festival with several shots of the southern town’s gentle landscape.

Her “Best Friends,” an image of two girls, one black, one white, is perhaps the most resonant of the group. The girls stand in a field of grass side by side, both dressed simply in denim jeans and pale-colored tank tops, without any discernible facial expressions but with a marked self-assurance. The photo succeeds with Graham’s signature subdued sentimentality.

The final collection in “Eatonville” is by Carrie Mae Weems, a writer as well as a photographer. The exhibit includes passages from folklores in complement to Weems’s sepia-toned photos.

Weems placed herself in many of the photos, an aspect of the collection that’s engaging but a bit bizarre. Maria Cotera, a professor of American culture, Latino studies and women studies, describes it as Weems’s attempt to “photograph herself as Zora’s restless ghost wandering the back roads and hidden places of Eatonville.”

There are two photos in which Weems is sitting next to a piano with only her profile shown. In one photo, her face is overcome by exuberant laughter; in the other, she glares fiercely, but with a hint of mourning. Placed alongside one another, the images suggest a representation of Hurston’s spirit, and that of Eatonville as whole: stunning persistence after a history of hardship.

“If you swept dust out of the house at sunset you might just sweep away the spirit . ” reads one of the plaques towards the end of Weems’s collection, an excerpt from a Chinese superstition. The “Eatonville” photographs are, in essence, an evocative capturing of this spirit. The photographs resonate because of their understated qualities; their presence isn’t only in the physical beings they depict, but also in the sentiments behind them.

“Embracing Eatonville” is the dust that has remained throughout the years. Weems, Willis, Graham and Bey succeed in conveying the life of Eatonville, a town that has made history and that, with its resilient community intact, continues to shape it.

Embracing Eatonville
Through March 18

At the UMMA Off/Site

Free

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