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Carrie Mae Weems @ Cantor Arts Center

Untitled (Man and Mirror) from the KitchenTable Series, 1990. Gelatin silver print, 27 1/4 x 27 1/4"

What more is there to say about Carrie Mae Weems? Photographs and videos by Weems have been the focus of some fifty solo exhibitions, nationally and internationally, and too many group shows to count. Weems has presented her work to museum audiences in hundreds of artist talks and shared her practice with broad audiences in an episode of Art 21. Critics have covered her exhibitions for such prestigious publications as Art in America, Artforum, Aperture, American Art, the Washington Post and the New York Times. Respected scholars—including the curator Kathryn E. Delmez, and contributors to the current exhibition catalogue Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Robert Storr, and Deborah Willis–have offered their perspectives on Weems’s unique contributions to the contemporary arts. Most major American museums hold examples. Finally, the MacArthur Foundation just designated Weems a “genius.” 

Although many–no doubt, including Weems herself–have problems with the word “genius” because of the term’s historical implication in the most egregious exclusions within western cultural canons. Genius, as we know it, designates exceptional and singular creators such as Manet, Picasso, Duchamp. The term, nevertheless, warrants serious consideration in relation to both the sweep and thrust of the oeuvre presented in the major retrospective now on view at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University. For Weems’s oeuvre, in various ways, critically addresses the politics of the very value systems that nominate and privilege white male geniuses. 
 
The series Not Manet’s Type, 1997, makes Weems’s critique of genius explicit. The photographs, which capture mirror images of Weems, unclothed, in a bedroom setting, bear texts reflecting on the roles played by black women (as models, not artists) in western art history: “It was clear,/I was not Manet’s type/Picasso—who had a way/with women—only used me/& Duchamp never even/considered me.” Playing on the double sense of the word “model,” the artist reports in another caption, “I knew not from memory/but from hope that there/were other models by/which to live.” Weems has found and championed other models.
 
Afro-Chic (video still), 2010. DVD, 5 minutes, 30 seconds

 

She uses various strategies to raise awareness of the extent to which culture—far from being the product of brilliant individuals–is collectively generated, often in humble settings like the kitchen. Tellingly, she counts the makers of Gees Bend quilts among her sources of inspiration. Weems studied folklore as a graduate student at UC Berkeley and remains passionately committed to popular art forms, oral histories, and the extra-institutional transmission of cultural identity. Some of her earliest exhibited work incorporates family pictures and oral histories recited in her resonant performer’s voice. 

She began making photographs to create representational space “for women who look like me,” she has said time and time again in artist talks and interviews. “What do I want to see?” she asked herself as an undergrad at Cal Arts and then an MFA student at UC San Diego in the 1980s. Some of her very first published photographs appeared in Blatant Image (no.1, 1981) a radical feminist photography journal created, in the words of the editors, “to explore feminist values and expand the range of who is being seen.” These photographs–picturing women of all ages, body types, and heritages–contributed to the diversification of image culture, and thus became available as models for women.  As participant observers, Weems and the other women photographers contributing to Blatant Image aimed to change the dynamics of cultural visibility, changing the ways women viewed themselves and were viewed by others. 

"Mourning from Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment," 2008, pigment ink print, 60 x 50"

Very early in her career, Weems began to blur the distinction between participant and observer. In her well-known Kitchen Table Series, 1990, Weems acts as both the artist and the model. In this sequence of domestic mise-en-scenes, she represents herself, Carrie Mae Weems (cultural actor, director, and producer), and, at the same time personifies strong, black, modern womanhood generally. 

Weems sometimes enlists other actors in her creations. For the series Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment, 2008, Savannah College of Art and Design students re-performed a series of historical traumas that have shaped contemporary American consciousness. These photographic tableaux draw on news coverage of the assassinations of President Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the arrest of Angela Davis. These events took place before the student performers were born and reenactment served them as a form of embodied research. For contemporary viewers and performers alike, Constructing History both memorializes key historical moments and brings historical archives back into focus in the present moment. 
 
Occasionally, Weems acknowledges the collective aspects of cultural and historical production by mobilizing archival images themselves. The milestone series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 1995-96, for example, reappropriates vintage photographs of African-Americans to indict the racist systems in which the images collude. Weems has enlarged the pictures to human scale, tinted them blood red, and etched the glass of their frames with declarative statements spelling out, in capital letters, how each was viewed by those with the power to enslave, exploit, define, and denigrate them. “You became a scientific profile” “A Negroid type” “An anthropological debate.” “You became playmate to the patriarch” “And their daughter.” “You became an accomplice.” “Anything but what you were. Ha.” She turns anonymous images captured by anthropologists and documentarians into portraits, recognizing the dignity of the subjects.
 
"Untitled (Box Spring in Tree)" from Sea Islands Series, 1991–92. Gelatin silver print, 20 x 20"

Even her landscapes may function this way, as portraits. They are marked by human hands and layered with lived experience. The Sea Islands Series, 1991-92, explores the “most African of American cultures” preserved by Gullah communities on islands off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina without representing a single human inhabitant. Weems adopted a similar approach for two roughly contemporaneous series, Slave Coast, 1993, and Africa, 1993, where arresting photographic portraits of place (architectural structures, roads, pathways) combine with poetic texts to summon up the suppressed histories of men and women captured by slave traders and shipped like cargo across the

 

Atlantic. The images teach us about what Weems calls “the art of looking.” In the spaces between these haunted images of place and their accompanying text panels, untold stories resonate.

In recent years, Weems has returned as the protagonist of her work. She stars in the video, Italian Dreams, 2006, shot in Fellini’s studio, for instance. But more often she appears not as a star but as a witness. The “I” who beholds turns her back on the viewer, or stands contemplatively to one side, inviting identification. As viewers, we step with Weems into scenes saturated with historical and metaphysical significance. And, doing so, we adopt the viewpoint of an African-American woman, the “other of the Other.” In this way, the photographs denaturalize the allegedly universal (privileged male) perspective of documentary photography. 
 
Without minimizing the aesthetic brilliance, conceptual power, and technical virtuosity of Weems’s work, I suggest that her “genius” lies precisely in this confident and generous displacement of cultural agency. Weems shifts not only agency but also responsibility onto the viewer, and by extension larger viewing/witnessing communities. We, collectively, make and perpetuate culture, for better or worse, and we do that not only through the myths of genius we enable our museums and universities to perpetuate, but also through our everyday
 
"Blue Black Boy from Colored People", 1989–90. Triptych, three toned gelatin silver prints with Prestype and frame, overall: 16 x 48".; images: 16 x 16". each
 
activities: the bric-a-brac we accumulate, the jokes we repeat. These apparently inconsequential things receive emphasis in American Icons, 1988-89 (photographs of American interiors with “black memorabilia” on display) and Ain’t Jokin’, 1987-88 (photographs that ironically dramatize the punch lines of racist jokes). Any one who has heard a racist joke, or glanced at a demeaning knick-knack, has an opportunity to either dismiss such matters as trivial or break with patterns of tacit complicity. The photographs demand that we, all of us, own up to our participation in oppressive systems at every level and take action.
The work exhibited at the Cantor spans thirty years, decades of historical tumult for African Americans and women.  If Weems is what genius looks like in 2013, I say, “Hallelujah!” and I thank her for her part in redefining the term. 
–TIRZA TRUE LATIMER
 
“Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video” @ Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, through January 5, 2014. Organized by the Frist Center for Visual Arts, Nashville, Tennessee. Additional venues: Portland Art Museum, Oregon (Feb. 2-May 19, 2013), Cleveland Museum of Art (June 30- Sept.29, 2013), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (Jan. 24-April 23, 2014).
 
About the Author:
Tirza True Latimer is Associate Professor and Chair of the Graduate Program in Visual & Critical Studies at California College of the Arts, San Francisco. Her published work reflects on modern and contemporary visual culture from feminist and queer perspectives. She is co-editor, with Whitney Chadwick, of the anthology The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris between the Wars (Rutgers University Press, 2003) and the author of Women Together / Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris (Rutgers University Press, 2005). She co-organized, with the art historian Wanda Corn, the 2011-2012 exhibition, "Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories," hosted by the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, and the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.; and co-authored a book, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories (University of California Press, 2011), which accompanied the exhibition.
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Image credits
 
Man and Mirror: Collection of Eric and Liz Lefkofsky,115-128.2010, promised gift to The Art Institute of Chicago. © Carrie Mae Weems. Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago.
 
Afro-Chic: Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Carrie Mae Weems.
 
Mourning: Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Carrie Mae Weems.
 
Box Spring: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, gift of Carrie Mae Weems and P.P.O.W., 97.97.1. © Carrie Mae Weems. Photography by Robert Gerhardt.
 
Blue Black Boy: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Photography Committee, 2001.257a-d. © Carrie Mae Weems.
 

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