LOOK ELSEWHERE: CARRIE MAE WEEMS AT THE GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM by Patricia S. Jones
One of the great American cultural stories over the past three decades is the expansive inquiry, innovation and imagination of African American visual artists. Part of this achievement is currently visible in New York City, where a number of innovators are on view in the Whitney Biennial, Armory show and in major art galleries. One of the crests of this current wave is Carrie Mae Weems. Her powerful works take up the annexes on two floors of the Guggenheim Museum for Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, a show that originated at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, Tennessee. She is “committed to the image” to borrow the title from an important Brooklyn Museum show on Black photography of 2001. And her images demand careful seeing on part of museum visitors, who have until May 14 to view the show.
The exhibit was organized by senior curator Jennifer Blessing, and her assistant Susan Thompson, putting together 120 items, which show the breadth and deep expressiveness of Weems’ artistic vision. Weems can certainly be seen as an artist who is embracing “black subjectivity”, but what I find significant is her abiding feminism. Her vision is informed by gender in powerful and varied ways and this shows up in the way she frames historical images and her series from “Family Pictures and Stories” to “Dreaming in Cuba” and “Slow Fade to Black.”
Weems is best known for the “Kitchen Table Series” a set of gelatin silver prints, which show her as the main character in staged scenes from life similar to the work of Cindy Sherman. However, while Sherman is often the only figure in her works, Weems shows her persona gathered with others around the table in conversation, reading, putting on makeup with a “daughter”, drinking and eating. They have the quality of “soap operas” or ‘stories” as the Black women in my community called them.
I grew up with the “stories”. In them, gender issues, including chastity, sexual awakening, unwanted or desired pregnancy, marriage, and divorce were discussed in great and emotionally charged conversations. This gendered discourse allowed us to join in the gossip, both eavesdropping on the TV characters and picking up the thread in discussions of them given around our own kitchen tables. In those conversations much was asked: Who is this woman and how is she successful in getting her man, making that pretty baby, and then (of course) how does she lose him?
Weems offers a more subversive message in both the photographs and accompanying text. Her soap opera woman has a fuller life and deeper strengths than those on TV, even as, it seems she is going through the same cycles of meeting, connection and loss. The people in her photos are adults in conflict, and clearly gender roles hinder happy resolutions. The next to last photograph, coming after she has gone through some rough patches, shows her naked, the back of her head on the table as she looks up seemingly angry, sad and resigned. It’s emotionally devastating. “Step on a pin, the pin bends and that’s the way the story ends.” says the text. However, this is not the “end” of the series’ story. That comes in a photo in which Weems sits at her table, arranging the tarot, bravely looking towards the future.
In another major series, Weems confronts racism by appropriating racist photographs of Africans, slaves, and Blacks during the Jim Crow, which did not legally end until 1965. The series, “Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” is framed by a photograph of a royal Mangbetu woman in profile—her portrait tinted a dusky blue, with a blandly scathing remark across the center. In these Chromogenic prints with etched text on glass, Weems marshals her considerable intellect and deep rage, though the phrases are often simply reportage of the dismissive labeling of the masters: “Some said you were the spitting image of evil,” or “You became a scientific profile.” On the surface these pieces are beautiful in how they are tinted; the type face used for the texts; the framing. They are elegant, but it is an elegance ironically showcasing historical racist malignity—what happened to the stolen people brought to the Americas and made into servants, concubines, shoeshine men, laborers, circus performers, cartoons for America’s nightmares. Weems is unsparing in her condemnation of these images and their use and the royal woman’s tears, the ones we never see, but know existed, are even more heart rending.
An Anthropological Debate from (Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried) 1995-96 Chromogenic print with etched text on glass from an original daguerreotype taken by J.T. Zealy, 1850. Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Photo ©2012, MoMA, NY.
A second way of looking at America’s brutal history of enslavement is brought forward in Weems “Slave Coast” pictures, again beautifully shot and framed are installed in galleries covered in a screen print wall paper of her design. As have many other African American artists. In her series, Weems combines panels of photographs of the old ports and texts, though she well knows the words can in no way explain or comprehend the image(s). A visual poem: “grabbing/snatching/blink/and you/be gone” is paired with the steps that to and from the “door of no return.” The steps are handsome, courtly, bespeak the great wealth made from selling human flesh. The explosiveness of such juxtapositions comes not from the picture or the words alone, but from the ironic, thought-wrenching sparks between them.
And with the “Sea Islands” series, she examines how those shipped to the Carolinas, where the majority of enslaved Africans were brought and sold in the US, were able to hold onto African cultural expression well into the 20th century. The Sea Islands and the Gullah people have inspired Black American artists from the filmmaker Julie Dash who made Daughters of the Dust on St. Helen to the photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe whose series on Daufauskie are well-known. Weems adds yet another stratum of images to this rich material in a series of photographs that offer both mythic and mundane landscapes in silver gelatin plates that shimmer and shine. Her pristine pictures of houses, churches, woods and cemeteries exhibit the ways in which the African Diaspora’s historical positions and cultural expressions offer a discourse on the human values in which from songs to sculpture global civilization has been shaped.
“American made us heroines/not wives/we learned the tricks/to keep the race together” from “Black Woman” by Lucille Clifton
The works that give you the fullest expression of Weems’ fierce sense of humanity, her body, her wit (mother and otherwise) and intelligence, then go straight to the fourth floor. In these prints, Weems turns the camera on herself in various staged interiors and exteriors. In one series, Not Manet’s Type she appears on or near a bed in nudity or semi-nudity, poking critical fun at the Western painting tradition in which Black women are rarely seen as the ideal of beauty. Weems’ own considerable beauty is on display in these photographs, often framed in a semi-circle of a mirror, giving a lie to the narrow Western canons of female loveliness. Of course, some might find it troubling that an artist that has consistently exposed the objectification of black women (and men) would seem to be objectifying herself. Even so, this troubling is useful to remind each of us of how female bodies are used for the purposes of art, high and low. Too bad the Guggenheim didn’t include in this show Framed by Modernism. This triptych in which a nude Weems serves as “muse” and model to Robert Colescott wearing what should be called “De Kooning drag” is one of the best critiques of the art world’s gender politics as you’ll ever see. “We learned the tricks” as Clifton points out and Weems is truly the heroine here.
The penchant of 19th century Americans to take the Grand Tour of Europe to examine their supposed cultural heritage is upbraided by Weems in the series: “Roaming” developed during her residency at the American Academy in Rome. Franklin Sirman notes in his catalogue essay that this series expresses her interest in “the structures of history.” Where wealthy Americans in the 19th century took this tour to exalt in Europe’s achievement, Weems looks at them in the light of imperialism and exploitation of non-European continents that funded the building of so many monuments. The placement of this series adjacent to "Here I Saw What Happened and Cried" underscores her perspective.
Where white Americans on the Grand Tour would pose proudly facing the camera with the monument behind them, Weems has her back to the camera, her gaze away from the viewer and most likely away from even those monuments. Not since Miles Davis turned his back on the audience during his jazz concerts has a Black artist stood firmly turned away. The gesture is as calculated as the “hand on the hips” moment that Black women take when things must be emphasized and signified.
A Broad and Expansive Sky—Ancient Rome from (Roaming), 2006 Photo © Carrie Mae Weems
The Guggenheim has lately given us the opportunity to see the work of some women photographers, as evidenced by a retrospective of the late Francesca Woodman’s work a couple of years ago. This exhibition by Carrie Mae Weems, despite the installation limitations, is part of that growing and welcome trend and of course, is a long overdue. The show provides a solid introduction to the work of this major American creator at the height of her cultural production. She gives the viewer much to consider. I leave you thinking of this image. She is photographed standing at the water’s edge, her back to the viewer, eyes towards the sky, the cosmos. She seems to ask us to look to where we have been, to ask what we have done and to begin to look elsewhere.