Ross Smith, Bayeté: Provocative Portraits Prove We Are What We Wear

That Bayeté Ross Smith is relaxed and easy going can be inferred from his colorful wrinkled button down shirt, oversized sport coat, and soft knitted driver’s cap. When I asked the artist if it is “fair” that people are judged by their outward appearance, Bayeté commented that this is a "very San Francisco-type of question." Fair or unfair, this is life.

The portrait series called “Our Kind of People” is a full scale expansion of work that was first shown at the artist's MFA show in 2004, then at the 2005 San Francisco GenArt juried Emerge exhibition. The four part series (six 20” x 24” light jet prints each) features regular people of different ethnic backgrounds. The subjects wear the exact same neutral expression in each image- no smile, face at rest, not even a hint of personality comes from the eyes. The photos were taken with the same lighting, from the same distance, with the same plain white background. It is this spartan combination that allows each subject to change, chameleon-like, from professional, suit wearing dilbert, to sweat-clad student, to hipster, to gangster (signified by wife-beater tank and colored bandana). Bayeté was the stylist on the shoot as well, working with his subjects (who also happen to be his friends) to pick the costumes from their own closets.

New work "Passing" (light jet prints 30" x 40") tells a similar story. A man with skin the color of creamy coffee and close cropped curly black hair is pictured on multiple passports: Brazil, Ethiopia, Israel, Sudan, Cuba, US, Netherlands, South Africa etc. The same issue is raised here- we make assumptions about people based on our assumptions about appearances, "facts," and what we do or don't know about the larger world community.

Bayeté received his Bachelor of Science in Photography ’99 from Florida A&M University. FAMU has a prestigious photography program through the School of Journalism and Graphic Communication. Although the artist has been taking photos since he became interested in the medium at age 14, Bayete picked FAMU because it was a Black College with a great business program. "My experiences as a business major, at a Black school in the South, are the foundation for much of my work about identity." The photography curriculum at FAMU emphasizes the service industry aspects of photography. "It caused me to learn about creating images that convey a narrative and could be accessible to people from a broad range of backgrounds and education levels. It has been invaluable in my work as an artist. It has allowed me to create projects that are relevant to regular people, not just 'art' people."

The Bachelor of Science was then complimented with formal training in the fine arts through an MFA in photography '04 from the California College of the Arts. Notable accolades on his resume include 25 Under 25 2003 photography show curated by Iris Tillman, New York University and the companion text 25 Under 25, Up and Coming American Photographers, by the Center for Documentary Studies and Power House Books. Bayeté is most proud of being invited to present his work at the California Judiciary Council's 2006 Conference on Language Access in the courts where he presented work from Our Kind of People, Passing, and Upwardly Mobile.

Bayeté is an active member of the community, teaching at several schools and non-profits in the Bay Area including including the East Oakland Youth Development Center, Far West High School in North Oakland, Art-Esteem in West Oakland, Southern exposure's Mission Voices program in the Mission District, McClymond H.S.'s Young Photographer's program in West Oakland, and Out Of Site center for the Arts in S.F. In addition to being a strong role model and mentor, he teaches art, photography, video, painting and drawing, collage and hip hop art & culture.

Bayete's is one of three featured photographers in this show. The San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, in a programmatic partnership with PhotoAlliance, presents Lens on Life; an exhibition featuring artists involved in the exploration of place and identity from both African and African American perspectives. This special exhibition is supported by the San Francisco International Arts Festival and the Museum of the African Diaspora.

This show $475-$2500

The show is on view at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery through June 22, 2007. The gallery is in the basement of City Hall, open to the public Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. For installation information, contact San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, 94102 (415) 554-6080