Installation view of “A Teenager With Promise (Annotated)” (2017)


AT THE END OF FEBRUARY, the Whitney Museum of American Art announced 75 artists selected to participate in the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Among them is Alexandra Bell, an artist with a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.

Rather than using her journalism degree to report the news, Bell is harnessing her media literacy skills to consume and critique it. The multidisciplinary artist focuses on the front page design of newspapers, primarily The New York Times. She highlights headlines that are not fit to print and points out bias in image selection, layout decisions, and narrative details.

Similar to a newsroom editor, she marks up the pages, then recreates and enlarges them, and posts her work in public—displaying it side-by-side with the originals. The series is called Counternarratives. The works give viewers the opportunity to compare and contrast the visual messaging and problematic portrayals.

“I think everything is about race,” Bell says in a Mediastorm video about her work (below). “Black communities, gay communities, immigrant communities, feel a lot of media representations to be inadequate, biased. There’s a lot of reporting around police violence and black men and I realized a lot of the arguments that we were having were about depictions. I started to wonder how different would it be if I swapped images or if I changed some of the text. And so that was the first time I physically started playing around with the words.”

“I think everything is about race. Black communities, gay communities, immigrant communities, feel a lot of media representations to be inadequate, biased.” — Alexandra Bell

Describing her work, Alexandra Bell states that she “deconstructs language and imagery to explore the tension between marginal experiences and dominant histories.” | Self portrait by Alexandra Bell, Courtesy the artist


Alexandrea Bell discusses her practice and explains some of her work. | A film by MediaStorm, executive produced by Harbers Studios for the International Center of Photography


During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, the front page of the Times carried the headline “Accused of Fabricating Robbery, Swimmers Fuel Tension in Brazil,” with a huge photograph of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt accompanying the story. The photo caption reported Bolt won the gold medal in the men’s 200-meter dash and directed readers to a story about his achievement in the B section.

Nonetheless, the nation’s paper of record published a headline about a fabricated robbery and instead of depicting the white swimmers, including Ryan Lochte, who were implicated, it featured an unrelated image of a black man, fueling stereotypes about black men and crime, while limiting the negative exposure of the white men.

In her reinterpretation, Bell replaced the image of Bolt with one of Lochte and rewrote the headline adding a reference to “White American Swimmers.”

“There’s no way if the track team had done that they wouldn’t have been on the front page” she says in the video.

Bell has also questioned the representation of Mike Brown, the black teenager killed in 2014 by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and 2017 coverage of the white nationalist torch march and subsequent violence in Charlottesville, Va.

“I’m 35. I’ve never seen a torch rally,” the Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based artist says in the video. “Like this is some shit I feel like I would read about in a book.”

Bell has pasted up the images from her Counternarratives series on building facades in Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. The work has also been displayed at MoMA PS1, We Buy Gold, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Atlanta Contemporary, and the Pomona College Museum of Art. Her work has also been presented at the International Center of Photography (ICP). She won a 2018 Infinity Award from ICP and is a 2018 Soros Equality Fellow.

“This isn’t a grammar exercise,” Bells says in the video. “I’m really trying to see if I can disrupt subliminal messaging about who should valued.” CT


The Whitney Biennial 2019 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, N.Y., is May 17-Sept. 22, 2019.


TOP IMAGE: Installation view of ALEXANDRA BELL, “A Teenager With Promise (Annotated),” 2017, MoMA PS1, Long Island City, N.Y. | Photo by Charles Roussel, Courtesy the artist


UPDATE (3/6/19): Revisions made to clearly indicate that all quotes are excerpted from MediaStorm video.


FIND MORE about Alexandra Bell and her practice on her website

FIND MORE about Bell and her work at The New Yorker


According to The New Yorker, Alexandra Bell was inspired to become an artist by the work of Glenn Ligon, whose practice focuses primarily on text-based paintings and neon work. “Glenn Ligon: AMERICA” documents Ligon’s 25-year survey exhibition. Whitney Biennial 2017 was published to document the latest biennial, which included artists Deana Lawson, Pope.L, and Henry Taylor, among many others.


Installation view of ALEXANDRA BELL, “Olympic Threat,” 2017, Sincerely, Tommy concept store, Brooklyn, N.Y. | Photo by We Are Not Pilgrims, Courtesy the artist


On Aug. 19, 2016, The New York Times published a photo of sprinter Usain Bolt under the headline “Accused of Fabricating Robbery, Swimmers Fuel Tension in Brazil,” which might easily lead readers to conflate Bolt’s Olympic victory, with involvement in the the controversy. Bell reconsidered the presentation by editing the headline and replacing the track star’s image with a photo of swimmer Ryan Lochte, who was directly involved with the “fabricated robbery.”


Installation view of ALEXANDRA BELL, “A Teenager With Promise,” Sincerely, Tommy concept store, Brooklyn, N.Y. | Courtesy the artist


The Times published parallel profiles of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson on Aug. 24, 2014. The Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot and killed Brown is pictured in his uniform. Brown is shown in wearing a baseball cap and white t-shirt. Bell redacts much of the article text, revises the headline to emphasize Brown’s promise and replaces the teenager’s photo with an enlarged graduation portrait.

“The Mike Brown article always stuck out to me as an extreme example of false equivalency,” Bell told DNAInfo. “The Darren Wilson stuck out as more considerate and more forgiving, while the Mike Brown article was more like a takedown, like a classic victim blaming. That’s the danger of how we talk about black people in the media.”

“It’s a kid and a cop, and there’s not a ton left for me to say,” she added. “Structurally, the layout was problematic because they’re so different. The layout equalizes them, and you can’t do that. They’re not two 18-year-olds who got in a scuffle.”


Installation view of ALEXANDRA BELL, “Charlottesville,” 2017, Sincerely, Tommy, Brooklyn, N.Y. | Photo by Darryl Richardson, Courtesy the artist


On the front page of its Aug. 13, 2017, edition, the Times devoted three columns to a feature titled “Stay, Hide or Leave?” about the difficult choices faced by undocumented immigrants in Hampton, Iowa, accompanied by a photo nearly as tall as the entire area above the fold. By contrast, with the striking headline, “White Nationalist Protest Leads to Deadly Violence,” the paper’s coverage of the Charlottesville torch rally somehow only merited two columns and a comparatively diminutive sized image. Bell revised the layout, giving the stories the visual priority she thought better reflected their news value.


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