September/October 2004

more feature articles:

Between Berlin and Benin
Hans Haacke, Meschac Gaba and the Global Community
by Jerry Cullum


Carrie Mae Weems and the Stuff of African-American Experience

By Phil Oppenheim

As the twenty minutes for which I had bargained for an interview with Carrie Mae Weems stretched into an hour, I realized how central negotiation had been to our conversation; Weems had used the word repeatedly throughout our chat to describe both her career and her newest exhibitions, „The Louisiana Projectš and „Dreaming in Cuba.š Negotiationųbetween history and anthropology, social groups and the individual, photography and video, the races and gendersųdominates much of Weems‚s work.

Weems focuses on the African-American experience and, throughout her career, has synthesized disparate images, stories, artifacts and histories (both individual and social) into her primarily photographic exploration. Her three studios teem with „tons, tons, tons of books, negatives, files, records, African masks, posters, old advertisements, old bottlesš and the like; Weems collects a little of everything because she works „with lots of stuff.š1 Such stuff, of course, is what we are ultimately made of, and Weems examines the identities we construct for ourselves from the legacies we inherit.

Carrie Mae Weems, The Louisiana Project (detail), 2003, installation at
Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta (photograph by Wilford Harewood).

Family anecdotes, for instance, form the basis of her series „Family Pictures and Storiesš (1978ų84), in which text detailing complex, evocative family histories complement a collection of photographs. In her „Ain‚t Jokin‚š series (1987ų88), Weems attaches found racist jokes, riddles, playground taunts and advertising slogans to a variety of images, mostly of strong black subjects who rebel against the textual stereotypes; similarly, „American Iconsš (1988ų89) places racist advertising artifacts (often the quarry of yard sales and flea market hunters) in domestic settings, highlighting how casually hate-based culture seeps into our homes and consciousnesses.

Later works amplify her techniques and reveal Weems‚s growing scope. The complexities and negotiations of contemporary black women in a culture shaped by external forces are addressed in „Untitled (Kitchen Table Series),š which casts Weems as the protagonist in a drama about a woman becoming an individual as she falls in and out of a romance, set on the stage of a kitchen table. Other key works, such as „Untitled (Sea Island Series)š (1991ų92), „From Here I Saw What Happened and I Criedš (1996), „Ritual and Revolutionš (1998) and „The Jefferson Suiteš (1999), mingle Weems‚s photographs with archival images of African-Americans, poetry, audio narration, scientific documentation and a host of artifacts to create theatrical installations that examine conflicting strains of history, from colonial atrocities forward, to explain the origins of our contemporary social crises and how our cultural DNA has incorporated them.

Weems has carefully negotiated a balance between her influences to create art that seduces viewers as „rich and lovelyš while still engaging and informing, to avoid any „discrepancy between the beauty of the work and the message that is involved or implied.š Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava‚s collaboration The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955) gave Weems a model for socially engaged, beautifully rendered photographs of real-life African-American culture in their poetic depictions of life in mid-century Harlem, and Weems draws freely from their vital, participatory example. Weems also blends her fascination with folklore (her academic discipline for her graduate studies at UC Berkeley) with anthropology. One of the chief influences on Weems‚s narrative strategy, for instance, is Zora Neale Hurston‚s collection of African-American tales Mules and Men (1935), in which Hurston adopts the participant-observer methodology of her mentor, anthropologist Franz Boas; from the novelist‚s models, Weems has created her own first person, culturally engaged accounts.

The political dimension of Weems‚s work similarly reflects consideration and compromise. Laura Mulvey‚s landmark essay „Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinemaš (1975) directly challenged Weems‚s work as a photographer interested in stories and storytelling; Weems‚s development of her Muse character, who engages viewers‚ attention while acting out her roles in the images, is the artist‚s attempt to avoid the powerlessness imposed by the male gaze. As a committed feminist, labor organizer and activist, Weems has crafted a position indebted to thinkers from Malcolm X to Antonio Gramsci; Gramsci‚s observation that „every individual is not only the synthesis of contemporary relationships, he is also a summary of the entire pastš (quoted alongside her Polaroid print Some Theory [1991], from „And 22 Million Very Tired and Very Angry Peopleš) is fundamental to understanding Weems‚s tactics and goals. She also incorporates Gramsci‚s belief in counter-hegemonic cultural practices that could negotiate the daunting blockade of ideology: her work challenges, subverts and exposes deeply ingrained, rarely discussed and profoundly damaging societal assumptions.

Carrie Mae Weems, The Louisiana Project (detail), 2003, installation at
Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta (photograph by Wilford Harewood).

„The Louisiana Projectš brings Weems‚s political agenda and accumulated techniques to the state‚s tangled history; Tulane University‚s Newcomb Art Gallery commissioned the work as a critical companion piece to the celebratory festivities surrounding the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial in 2003. Weems concentrates on New Orleans, one of America‚s most photographed cities, and on the Mardi Gras, one of the country‚s most photographed public events. Her approach recognizes the long legacy of New Orleans photography, and her vision confronts the souvenir soft-focus work of Eugene Delcroix, the gothic surrealism of Clarence John Laughlin, the landscapes of Michael A. Smith and the bordello portraiture of E.J. Bellocqųbut tells a different story than her predecessors.

Weems wanted to tease out the hidden histories of Louisiana, which led her to Mardi Gras, a theatricalized condensation of a web of relationships between white and black, rich and poor, elites and the masses. Finding that „popular forms speak very deeply about the culture and societyš and that the costumed extravaganza of Carnival thus becomes „a wonderful way of thinking about what‚s veiled in the culture,š Weems argues that Mardi Gras comprises ritualized theatrical practices that recapitulate the history of New Orleans‚ oppressive race relations, thus normalizing the city‚s racism and sexism in a festival that masquerades as a wild, fun free-for-all.

Weems begins her project by demonstrating the complexity of the history of the city and state. „The Louisiana Purchase was not so much the result of skilled negotiations on the parts of Monroe and Jefferson,š her exhibition text reads, „but the consequences of Saint Dominique (Haiti), malaria, yellow fever, and the spreading seeds of freedom in the mind of Toussaint L‚Ouvertureš (the „Black Napoleon,š leader of the eighteenth century Haitian slave revolt that ultimately led to Napoleon‚s retreat from the New World): were it not for the former slave turned revolutionary hero, the Louisiana Purchase wouldn‚t have happened. Weems‚s proxy, The Muse (played in photographs by the artist), leads her audience to negotiate their way through three galleries that expand upon the theme.

In the first gallery, pictures of carnivalesque iconography (a figure with an elephant-head mask, another with a donkey-head mask) join images of the Muse, forcing men and women to confront their images in a hand-held mirror and guiding spectators on the way to self-refection and contemplation. The second gallery more directly confronts the Mardi Gras spectacle. Large, shadowy images of a Carnival King, Queen and servant form a mural-sized narrative of ritualized domination and subjugation, symbolically shrouded in secrecy (both via silhouette and the impression of a chain-link fence veil). Weems‚s critical, confrontational voice-over (together with her Super 8 cinematography) undermines the pageantry of a contemporary Krewe of Rex ballųcomplete with the presentation of debutantes. Weems reveals how masquerade becomes a „playing out of power among a set of social constituents,š how the elaborate, arcane structures of the Mardi Gras krewes, their costumes (closely related to the Ku Klux Klans‚ robes) and their private rituals reinforce their domination of the social hierarchy.2

In the last gallery, Weems‚s calico-dressed Muse directs our attention to photographs of New Orleans architectural structures, including a white-columned, slavery-era mansion, the notoriously impoverished (and predominantly African-American) Iberville housing project, cemeteries, industrial tanks and ghetto-located advertisements plastering racial stereotypes across homes. The Muse is our silent participant-observer, leading us to draw our own conclusions about the roots of black cultural disenfranchisement.

For Weems, The Muse is critical to her work, guiding the artist „through these spaces to inhabit and to understand something profound about certain kinds of social realities and cultural upheavals∑She is the energy, she is the human embodiment that gives the places meaning.š The Muse also figures prominently in „Dreaming in Cuba,š here cast in a series of photographs as a local in domestic, urban, rural and workplace tableaux. Weems inserts herself into the narrative of revolution and its aftermath, pondering the effects of political upheaval on emotional and psychological levels (as always, in the context of economic realities). As she explains her role, „I feel as Rosa Luxemburg did: őI am home wherever in the world there are clouds, birds, and human tears.‚š

Weems promises to include even more video and film along with photography and text in the future. The addition of the moving image has revolutionized artistic practice, she maintains; for her, video represents an „amazing shift that allows us to finally negotiate the space between museum culture and popular culture.š Her next project, „Coming Up for Air,š will consist of different short video pieces. One imagines that another project, concerning New Orleans jazz legend Bunk Johnson, will similarly rely on multimedia.

At some point, Weems may revisit „The Louisiana Project,š incorporating research and work she‚s produced about Zulu, the black krewe that arose to mock the traditions of Rex, but still manages to reinforce Rex‚s primacy; unfortunately, timing constraints prevented her from including it in the show‚s current version. The exhibition‚s installation at the Spelman College Museum of Art suggests that Weems might spend some time in Atlanta, too. We can only hope that she might be persuaded to bring her impassioned approach to documentary narration to her host city, her Muse helping Weems negotiate the subtler story of Atlanta, The City That Positions Itself As Too Busy to Hate.

From an interview with the author; all quotations from the same interview unless otherwise noted.
For a more formal history of the relationship between Mardi Gras and race, class, and gender, see James Gill‚s Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans (University Press of Mississippi, 1997).

„Carrie Mae Weems: The Louisiana Project & Dreaming in Cubaš is at Atlanta‚s Spelman College Museum of Fine Art until September 25, 2004. Weems‚s ongoing film/video project „Coming up for Airš will be screened at the Museum Tuesday, September 21 at 6:30 p.m., followed by a conversation with the artist.

PHIL OPPENHEIM writes regularly from Atlanta. His review of the Elevation Gallery‚s „Atomic Popš show appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of


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