The New York-based photographer, author and curator Deborah Willis, who explores themes related to gender and Black bodies in her work, has received the $200,000 Don Tyson Prize for the Advancement of American Art, a prize awarded by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Willis was born in 1948 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and studied at George Mason University, the City College of New York, Pratt Institute and the University of the Arts. She is a professor and chair of the department of photography and imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Willis has received several prestigious accolades throughout her career, including MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships and the NAACP Image Award in 2014. Among her many publications is Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (2009), in which she gathered more than 200 images of seminal Black subjects, from figures of the past like Josephine Baker to contemporary artists like Hank Willis Thomas, her son.
“There is something about looking at images that forces me to question the narratives of the past,” Willis said in a statement. “I have long been puzzled by the imagery of Black peoples, and I have tried to make sense of the story that has been told.”
The latest exhibition she has curated, based on her book The Black Civil War Soldier (2021), is on view at the New York University Kimmel Windows Gallery (until 1 March 2023). It features antique portraits of Black soldiers and aims to explore how “memory, personal and public, as viewed through the experience of photography, shaped the history of the Civil War”, Willis writes in her curatorial statement. Willis also co-curated the exhibition Free as They Want to Be: Artists Committed to Memory (until 6 March 2023) that is included in the FotoFocus Biennial in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The award was launched in 2016 by the family of the late Don Tyson, the former chairman and chief executive of the Arkansas-based food processing company Tyson Foods. It has previously recognised the Houston-based organisation Project Row Houses, the artist Vanessa German and the Archives of American Art.