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History from Below: The photography of Carrie Mae Weems

May 12, 2009

The photographer Carrie Mae Weems uses clear, direct compositions to deal with subject matter that is difficult and often messy, such as the historical marginalization of African Americans. She sifts through the images and ideas of American culture with the fervor of a social anthropologist, unearthing depictions of racism in its many forms, whether outright violence or subtle prejudice. Perhaps sensing the tedium of academic dicussions, Weems seems to operate on the understanding that stark pictures can strike an audience with more immediacy than rhetorical discourse.

Her convictions find expression through a variety of photographic approaches that are bold and often confrontational. In the exhibit of her work I visited three years ago at Chattanooga’s Hunter Museum of American Art, I saw staged shots of characters in symbolic costumes, startling portraits of African slaves interposed with print, and photos of herself standing before various scenes in New Orleans, the location of one of her most recent projects.

In 2003, Tulane University’s Newcomb Art Gallery commissioned Weems to create an exhibit to commemorate the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase. She responded with “The Louisiana Project.” As Newcomb’s curators might have guessed, Weems’ show revisited the American hero of that historical moment. A photograph of Thomas Jefferson was one of the first pieces I saw when I entered the Hunter gallery room holding the exhibit.

Beside Jefferson, the purchase’s European counterpart hung in like form. The apparent sadness and worry in Napoleon’s eyes makes Jefferson’s gaze appear all the more confident and dignified. The obvious pride painted on the third president’s face is in keeping with the textbook opinion of Jefferson as our eloquent writer of political documents and exemplary venture capitalist. As I again passed this picture of Jefferson on my way out of the gallery, I think I understood why it was positioned to be the first image one sees when walking through the door.

“The Louisiana Project” is concerned with the story behind the common reference points that Jefferson’s and Napoleon’s faces represent. Weems is skeptical of the inherited notions of racial, political, and gender identity that have been shaped by the leaders of American society’s dominant power structures. In Weems’ inquiry, Jefferson is exhibit A. For “The Louisiana Project,” and its accompanying exhibit, “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” Weems offers photographic presentations you might call “history from below,” to borrow a phrase from Stephen Greenblatt, a leading figure in the school of literary and cultural theory known as new historicism. In fact, Greenblatt might say Weem’s exhibits “counter the history of the victors with that of the vanquished.”

"Missing Link, Liberty," CM Weems

"Missing Link, Liberty," CM Weems

In “The Louisiana Project,” Weems acts as our own personal anthropologist and tour guide, placing herself within many of her photographs. In some, she holds a mirror before men and women of different races, prompting them to question their faces as racial and gender signifiers, forms loaded with social implications. Elsewhere, Weems, dressed in elegant black formal wear, dons animal masks that seem to symbolize opposing political positions or parties (a photo of her wearing a donkey mask is positioned beside another of her wearing an elephant mask). One might guess her intention is to call out party positions as a safe shield behind which to hide. Further on, a photo of Weems in a monkey mask is opposite another of her in a zebra mask, and we are again left to wonder at her intended meaning. The sardonic, knowing expressions worn by these masks might suggest she means to mock the crude and nauseating expressions of racial prejudice in America, but this is only a guess. The next pair of photos might be considered with a similar line of reasoning, this time applied to simplistic notions of gender. In one of these photos Weems wears a lamb mask, with an expression of helplessness on her face, and in the other she wears a rooster mask, whose face looks over-confident and confrontational.

"Here's to the Other 9-5" CM Weems

"Here's to the Other 9-5" CM Weems

In another set of photos, Weems can be seen standing in various locations in and around New Orleans. Our viewpoint is from behind her, and we witness her studying certain buildings and signs. Her study of these scenes signals her implicit desire for us to follow her lead, and to ask what about the view might be of concern to the artist. In one photograph, she stands in an alley looking up at the side of a white building where a Coors Light beer sign is hung. The sign shows a group of young black men flashing gang signs beside a door that reads “Board of Directors.” A slogan beside the men sums up the ad, and the piece: “Here’s to the other 9-5.” And in this unexpected place, Weems finds an expression to convey her possible anger or sadness over the situation of overlooked peoples, common as that form may be.

Speaking on this piece, Weems has said, “I long to see images of black people that are more than simply prepackaged stereotypes. It was really rather shocking that in this town, which is fifty percent black, at least, that there are no images of black people anyplace, with the exception of this billboard that happened to be on the side of a liquor store. That is how much we have been reduced in this country.”

"You Became a Scientific Profile, A Negroid Type, An Anthropoligical Debate, & A Photographic Subject" CM Weems

"You Became a Scientific Profile, A Negroid Type, An Anthropoligical Debate, & A Photographic Subject" CM Weems

The reduced place of the African American identity, in its many forms and manifestations, is one of the most prominent themes in “The Louisiana Project.” In “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” created by Weems in 1995, this theme is put forth with an undeniable sense of ire and indignation. Through this exhibit, the artist presents a series of photos of African slaves, some of which date back to the 1840s. Shirtless and wearing only expressions of grief, they face the camera directly. The photos are cast with a deep red hue, and present themselves in the style of mug shots, as if their subjects were meant for scrutiny and strict sentencing. The visual effect Weems achieves resembles the look of a photo negative, a move that seems to suggest her positing of an alternate viewpoint– the one that has been tragically discarded or overlooked by the photo collections in traditional history texts, “the perspective of the vanquished.” Each figure is pictured underneath a line of text, which, in a terse and documentary tone, narrates another chapter in the collective historical identity of African Americans: “You became a Scientific Profile,” “A Negroid Type,” “An Anthropological Debate,” “& A Photographic Subject.”

When the sequence comes to its most disturbing image, a slave holding his wip-torn back towards the camera, the text breaks away from its documentary tone and takes on a lyrical voice. “Black and tanned/ Your whipped wind/ Of change howled low/ Blowing itself-ha-smack/ into the middle of/ Ellington’s orchestra/ Billie heard it too &/Cried strange fruit tears.” The last two lines of this poem reference the famous Billie Holiday song, which used the appealing image of fruit hanging from a branch to depict something grotesque and evil, the dead body of an African American man who’d been attacked by a mob and hung from a tree. Like Holiday, Weems has turned to art to express atrocities that seem to defy explanation. And she has created visual songs that counter alarming realities with surprising grace and beauty. Though they come to us in an era after the Civil Rights Movement, these are songs we still need to hear.

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