By Carl Belz
Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, edited by Kathryn E. Delmez, with contributions by Kathryn E. Delmez, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Franklin Sirmans, Robert Storr, and Deborah Willis. Frist Center for the Arts in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2012. Published in conjunction with the exhibition organized by the Frist Center for the Arts, Nashville, TN, September 21, 2012-January 13, 2013. Travel itinerary: Portland Art Museum, Oregon, February 2-May 19, 2013; Cleveland Museum of Art, June 30-September 29, 2013; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, February-May, 2014.
Curator Kathryn Delmez begins Carrie Mae Weems’s artistic odyssey in San Francisco in 1974, when “ a friend gave her a camera for her twenty-first birthday, and she quickly realized the potential of documentary photography to be a tool for tangibly expressing abstract political and social theories,” yet right from the start she allows Weems herself to articulate the odyssey’s impelling mission as “my responsibility as an artist is to…make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals; to beautify the mess of a messy world, to heal the sick and feed the helpless, to shout bravely from the rooftops and storm barricaded doors and voice the specifics of our historic moment.” The exhibition, which in the catalog is chronologically structured, invites us to observe the odyssey as it unfolds through nearly 30 series combining images, texts, audios and videos, each introduced by brief curatorial comment. Here, a sampling of representative excerpts:
Family Pictures and Stories, 1978-84: “Together, the photographs and narratives create an in-depth and realistic portrait of a middle-class African American family. The book is meant to stand in contrast to the 1965 Moynihan Report, which blamed ‘the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society’ on a weak family structure.”
Ain’t Jokin’, 1987-88 and American Icons, 1988-89: “In these two series, Weems demonstrates how aspects of mainstream popular culture can perpetuate the entrenchment of negative stereotypes and debilitating prejudices…Weems’s intent in both series is for viewers to acknowledge the persistence of an undercurrent of racism in American society and to consider…their potential role as accomplice, be it as participant, consumer, or silent witness.”
Kitchen Table Series, 1990: “The images trace a period in a woman’s life as she experiences the blossoming, then loss, of love, the responsibilities of motherhood, and the desire to be an engaged and contributing member of her community…Although Kitchen Table Series…is loosely related to her own experiences, Weems strives for it to reflect the experiences of Everywoman and to resonate across racial and class boundaries.”
Sea Island Series, 1991-92: “Weems became interested in the unique Gullah culture found on the Sea Islands off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina while studying folklore in graduate school…Because of the islands’ physical isolation from the mainland and their majority black population, the residents were able to retain many aspects of African culture throughout the period of slavery and into the present day.”
Slave Coast, 1993 and Africa, 1993: “A desire to examine more deeply the history and legacy of slavery spurred Weems to travel beyond the southeastern United States to Africa, stopping first along the so-called slave coast of western Ghana and Senegal. The photographs of now empty but once important centers along the slave trade route, such as the holding facilities on Goree Island, move beyond documentary. Powerful words summon the fear, humiliation, and helplessness inevitably felt by the recently captured Africans as they waited to embark on the treacherous journey across the Atlantic to a life of slavery.”
The Hampton Project, 2000: “Hampton Project” critically examines the connection between race and education as experienced at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University). Founded in Virginia in 1868, the school provided an education and vocational training for recently freed African Americans as well as young Native Americans. Despite largely good intentions, the students were stripped of cultural specificities in favor of conformity and forced assimilation. Weems reveals and grieves for this loss…”
|Carrie Mae Weems. The Edge of Time—Ancient Rome from Roaming, 2006. Digital chromogenic print, 73 x 61 in. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Carrie Mae Weems|
There you have it, a small taste of the social and political concerns driving the Weems odyssey, along with some of the thinking that informs it and its steadily broadening and deepening scope. In the context of the art of our time, Weems emerges from the curatorial comments and essays, and from the essays of the catalog’s guest contributors as well, as quintessentially and definitively postmodern—in the conceptual grounding of her serial practice, her interdisciplinary approach to media, her wide-ranging appropriations and ironic inflection, her probing cultural and institutional critique, and perhaps above all her reliance on performance and the multiple identities it affords as a vehicle for her message.
Concerning which, I think Robert Storr says it best: “Indeed, like a moving-picture auteur, she is the director, set designer, costumer, and star of her own unmoving pictures. By stepping in and out of multiple roles in a manner that only the most inattentive viewer could miss, she signals not only her complete authorial control over every aspect of her production…but her frank admission that nothing in it is ‘natural,’ least of all the part she plays as omnipotent conjurer.”
And here’s the bottom line: “The author can be anything she wants to be, anything she can imagine being—in art as distinct from life she can ‘fly’…and the viewer can accept what she has to offer without doubting the authenticity of her impersonations since their explicit artificiality is publically posted.”
And there you have postmodern freedom, the grail central to the Weems odyssey.