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The contributors to the exhibition catalogue Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video agree: a mid-career retrospective of Weems’s work has been long deserved. Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes in the book’s foreword that Weems is best known as a visual and verbal rhetorician, a narrator of history, and one who uses photography and video to ask hard questions about identity and American culture. These aspects of Weems’s work provide the book’s contributors with an analytical foundation from which to explore the African American artist’s varied practice. Consequently, editor Kathryn E. Delmez and authors Gates, Franklin Sirmans, Robert Storr, and Deborah Willis offer new insight into Weems’s vast career. Together they cast critical light on her engagement with folklore, her work’s performative aspects, its relationships to expressions of black beauty, as well as its place within the tradition of visual representation of and by African Americans.
Delmez suggests in her essay, “‘Real Facts, by Real People’: Folklore in the Early Work of Carrie Mae Weems,” that the artist aims to expose an authentic black figure by using folkloristic strategies such as storytelling, songs, and riddles. These techniques allow her photography to deconstruct mainstream white definitions of black identity, especially by blending “real facts, by real people” with an imaginary interpretation of her subjects. In this essay Delmez describes Weems’s Sea Island Series (1991–92), which pictures sites on islands off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina and aims to construct an authentic image of the distinctive Gullah culture, although, as Delmez points out, the island’s inhabitants are notably absent in the photographs. The essay reproduces Weems’s photographs of haunting figureless scenes featuring gravestones, overgrown landscapes, and buildings, which are accompanied by texts that quote published collections of Gullah folklore. Delmez describes a dialogue in these photographs among image, word, and artifact that strategically uses “cultural details to cut through official policy or history to reveal ‘real facts, by real people’” (19). These observations bring to mind a tension in Weems’s work between truth and the imaginary. Because Weems seeks out real locations and researches actual people and their pasts while suggesting the unknown, in her abandoned Gullah landscapes, it would seem that authenticity always means admitting the impossibility of knowing history, and leaving space for viewers to imagine the past.
Storr also identifies Weems’s approach to portraying African American histories in “Carrie Mae Weems: Anyway I Want It,” and delineates that approach from two others that have historically represented “the African American experience” (21) in the visual arts: namely, documentary and heroic modes of representation. While Storr offers James Van Der Zee’s photographs, Jacob Lawrence’s paintings, and Augusta Savage’s sculptures as examples of these two approaches, he defines Weems’s work in contradistinction to that of her predecessors’; hers is an unheroic break in the aesthetic chain of purportedly unmediated reality (23). To Storr, Weems shatters such historic visual continuity by staging documentary photographs and mediating images with text. For example, he describes the way in which Weems arranges photographs in Ain’t Jokin’ (1987–88) as depicting the “deliberate hijacking of racial stereotypes” (23). One of these photographs, Black Woman with Chicken, illustrates a woman holding a drumstick toward her mouth, only to block its entry with her other hand.
Equally essential to this visual rupture is Storr’s belief that viewers “are made keenly aware that they are witnessing a performance” (24) in Weems’s work. Here he cites the Kitchen Table Series (1990), which traces 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 a contributing member of her community (76). Although the narrative in this series is not based on Weems’s own life, the artist plays the subject in staged scenes where she sits at a kitchen table with a glowing light overhead, surrounded by other actors and strategically placed props. As Weems gestures toward the impossibility of picturing an authentic past in Sea Island Series, Storr’s analysis indicates how Kitchen Table Series demarcates the limits of photographically representing identity. Storr explains, “The Kitchen Table Series shows the artist’s hand from the outset the better to concentrate the viewer’s mind and emotions on confrontations whose dynamics speak truths about men and women and race even as Weems’s method tells the truth about the photo-theatrical hybridity of her medium and the conceptual predicates of her authorship” (28). The series does not tell the story of any one woman, but stands for the experience of many women, across racial lines. In this sense, Weems’s performative photography undermines the claims to truth that the medium has been called upon historically to possess.
Willis also investigates the possibility for photography to construct knowledge and reads Weems’s work through the lens of historical conceptions of beauty in her essay, “Photographing Between the Lines: Beauty, Politics, and the Poetic Vision of Carrie Mae Weems.” One of the issues Willis explores is the historical typecasting of black women, as in the case of Weems’s Not Manet’s Type (1997), in which she critiques white male artists’ choice of models and their definitions of ideal female beauty. In another instance, Willis performs a close reading of Weems’s four-panel portrait entitled Peaches, Liz, Tanikka, and Elaine (1988), which visually rearranges Nina Simone’s song “Four Women” by picturing four representative figures who lived during the post-civil rights era and at the beginning of the Black Power movement (35). This photographic grouping depicts Weems as a model transforming herself from a teenager to a middle-aged matron. Willis explains that the images reveal “Weems’s sensitivity to what it means to disembody a stereotype, feel the collective pain of generations of women, and revel in the re-creation of the self” (35). Willis’s comments extend beyond considerations of beauty in Weems’s work and describe the artist’s overall methodology, which takes identity formation as one of its foci.
In his essay, “A World of Her Own: Carrie Mae Weems and Performance,” Sirmans also explores the significance of the black female body in Weems’s work and evaluates the artist’s practice of inserting her own body into her photographs—a quality of Weems’s oeuvre that Sirmans rightfully observes is deserving of greater critical attention. Whereas Weems’s earliest works, including Family Pictures and Stories (1978–84) and Ain’t Jokin’, do not employ the artist’s body as subject, Sirmans cites Weems’s Ode to Affirmative Action (1989) as a new direction for Weems because it marks the point at which the artist began to use her own body as model. In this work, Weems poses as Dee Dee, a sultry nightclub singer, on the album cover for If You Should Lose Me, accompanied by a framed gold record bearing the track title, “Ode to Affirmative Action.” Sirmans believes Weems’s body signals questions of black inclusion, participation, and advantage in a world that Sirmans (quoting art historian Richard J. Powell’s Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009]) writes resembled a mob-controlled nightclub (46). Sirmans’s reading indicates that it is perhaps because Weems’s photographs are never explicitly autobiographical that the presence of the artist’s body implicates the viewer rather than the artist. The viewer is forced to consider Weems’s body as a stand-in for any of “us,” and to approach her images as performances of tradition, family, society, and race, rather than as biographical episodes.
One aspect noticeably missing from the essays in Carrie Mae Weems is an analysis of the artist’s work that employs video. The Louisiana Project (2003), an installation commissioned by Tulane University to commemorate the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, would have offered a powerful case study for exploring the subjects of interest to the authors: folklore, beauty, performance, and historic representation of African Americans. This artwork, along with every other element of Weems’s oeuvre, is reproduced in the exhibition catalogue, and of it Delmez briefly writes, “Weems appears as a witness to history, clothed in a nineteenth-century-style domestic worker’s or slave’s housedress, observing sites of slavery and antebellum pomp as well as current urban locales” (200). Delmez calls attention to the installation’s grainy film of a debutante ball, not from ages past, but from 2003, which reminds the viewer of the persistence of social inequalities. Mixing photography with video in The Louisiana Project, the past mingles with the present and “real facts, by real people” bleed into the imaginary.
The contributors to Carrie Mae Weems thus use Weems’s work to provide a critical framework for considering ideas about black visuality, which has been a concern of many recent publications in art history and visual culture studies. Powell’s Cutting a Figure, for example, coins the process by which artists “cut a figure,” or render a prideful and enthusiastic portrait of their sitters, who are in turn the agents of an “active visuality” (7). Powell’s concepts resonate with Sirmans’s ideas about Weems’s incorporation of her own body into her photography; we might see such incorporation as the site of Weems’s “active visuality” and the means by which she is able to begin writing a black visual history in projects such as Family Pictures and Stories. Willis’s study of black female beauty and Storr’s analysis of the location of Weems’s photographs in the history of black visual representation further dialogues with Anne Cheng’s recent study, Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). One issue that Cheng attends to is the nature of Baker’s visuality, which is ultimately defined not by the self, but by surfaces: skin, cloth, and ornament. As Cheng identifies Baker’s body as continually “challenging us to confront the fraught and ongoing dilemma of how to see raced bodies” (175), Willis suggests that Weems’s work also addresses the difficulty of considering images of black bodies as other than types, while Storr addresses the capacity of Weems’s performative strategies to destabilize surface understandings of the black body. Carrie Mae Weems thus engages with the ideas put forth in these and other recent texts, and yet its major contribution rests in its critical consideration of Weems’s entire career.
Ellen Macfarlane Brueckner
PhD candidate, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University
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