Black Lives Matter activist and Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson ’07 has been honored by the College with a portrait that will remain at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in its permanent collection. Unlike the typical oil painting portraits of other alums, Mckesson’s portrait is a hybrid of video footage and data drawn from Mckesson’s presence on social media.
New York-based artist R. Luke DuBois was commissioned to create a portrait that would not only be a valuable addition to the college’s collection, but also one that portrays an alum with whom students can resonate. Co-Directors of the Museum Anne Collins Goodyear and Frank H. Goodyear commissioned the piece.

“It’s really something for you guys. I think it’s really relevant to have one of your alums, who’s doing such important work in such an important historical moment, in your museum,” said DuBois.

Having met DuBois through her former position at the National Portrait Gallery, Anne Collins Goodyear expressed her appreciation for how his approach to portraiture comes across in the Mckesson portrait. 

“He’s bringing so many different disciplinary lenses to thinking about the world around us, reminding us that there are a myriad of different ways in which to interpret this unbelievable flow of information that is coming by us all the time,” said Goodyear.

The video-based portrait, titled “32 Questions for DeRay Mckesson,” is featured as a part of a solo exhibition titled “R. Luke DuBois—Now” at the Museum.

 “He’s super connected to this place, and this place really changed his life, so I think I’m kind of just like the middleman in a process that’s sort of like DeRay imparting what he’s learned in the nine years since he graduated,” said DuBois.

Currently with more than 325,000 followers on Twitter, Mckesson has become one of the most recognizable figures of the Black Lives Matter movement. His involvement with the movement is both on the ground and with an extensive presence on social media. 

“The way [the portrait] works is that as he talks, you see topics and keywords show up on the screen that are based on what he’s talking about. Those keywords are used as search terms for his Twitter feed,” DuBois said. “Then as he speaks, a real time feed of his Twitter in response to those topics appears. So if he’s talking in a clip about race, you’ll see a random sampling of his recent twitter activity talking about race.”

The interview questions that Mckesson answers in the digital portrait were crowd-sourced from Bowdoin students by Bowdoin Student Government and the African American Society (Af-Am).

President of Af-Am Ashley Bomboka ’16 expressed her excitement at what the portrait will provide for the student body.

“I think our generation grew up knowing technology was very much going to be a part of our life and it’s not a matter of choice anymore,” said Bomboka. “In order to fully participate in our society, we have to be hooked in—even if we don’t necessarily have these larger devices—to at least know what they are, to know what the capabilities are.”

While the video and the questions remain the same, the portrait will continually change. New data will be added to the portrait as Mckesson updates his online presence.

“To see him in real-time in this is awesome because he very much functions in real time, and everything about his life is dependent on where he is in social media, where he is right now on the ground, whether he’s protesting, or organizing, or teaching other people how to advocate for issues they care about,” said Bomboka.            

In addition to the video-based portrait of Mckesson, DuBois’ exhibition explores the human experience in a data heavy world of unlimited information. In addition to being an artist, DuBois is also a professor at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering with a Ph.D. in musical composition from Columbia. His exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art features a variety of film, sound works and video installations, incorporating computer programming and works on paper.

Other works include a video installation titled “Acceptance,” which features an edited synchronization of President Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s acceptance speeches at their party conventions in 2012. The piece reveals how a majority of the speakers’ words overlap, highlighting the similar rhetoric between two opposing parties, as much of his work focuses on the media of American identity. 

“He’s creating this really very new hybrid way of working and thinking that reminds me that there’s no one way to see things in perfect focus,” said Anne Goodyear. “There’s always this desirable interplay that we want to be engaged with as flexible citizens who are engaging in the world around us.”