Carrie Mae Weems Is Wow, Part I

For the past several years, a retrospective of the works of the photographer Carrie Mae Weems has been traveling the country, opening at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, traveling to Portland, Cleveland, Stanford, and ending up in 2014 at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. Your Meta-ist recently saw it there.

And what a head-blow-back experience it was.

Some overall context first, gentle readers. Weems is an African-American photographer who has been showing her work since the late 1970s. Her work is sometimes autobiographical—she is frequently her own model, and her family was the subject of an early photographic series represented in the retrospective. One of her most famous set of photographs, The Kitchen Table seriesweems_untitled_woman_playing_solitaire_1024, charts a relationship through love and breakup using herself as a central figure, and she has said that it is an attempt to show “the other of the other”—black women.

Her stated mission is to make African-Americans stand in for the human, rather than being marginalized and relegated to standing for just one cultural group. One of the mind-blowing things about the retrospective is how much she succeeds. Her work is also—more importantly—concerned with the larger realms of culture and history. (And, she generously places much of her artwork for viewing on her web site, which shows entire virtual galleries, including much that was not in the retrospective. So, lucky you, reader! Hasten on over.)

So, I want to focus today on a series from the late 1990s entitled “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried.” This is a series of reappropriated and recontextualized photographs, anthropological debate(mostly) 19th-century daguerreotypes of black people that Weems has framed, tinted with a wash of red, and superimposed with text. The photographs are bookended with photographs of an African princess, who is the putative speaker of the text. It is she who pronounces the title in the series, opening with “From Here I Saw What Happened”—she is gazing upon the US African diaspora from a stance in Africa, presumably. From there, the viewer walks through a group of photographs that are cultural stereotypes for the most part, reading variously “you became a scientific profile…a negroid type…you become Uncle Tom, John, and Clemens’ Jim” and so on—ending with “And I Cried,” as the princess bemoans the plight of her people.

As we move in time through the photographs, though, the princess’s “voice”—the text—refers to black achievement along with victimization. The photograph of a relief of Civil War soldiers, for example, is superimposed with “restless after the longest winter you marched & marched & marched”; a photograph of the 1960s Civil Rights protests carries the line “In Your Sing Song Prayer You Asked Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” However, achievement is mixed with struggle and a resistance by a dominant culture that does not yield easily, if (according to these photographs) at all.

Except for one. The African princess’s voice falls silent in one photograph, where the superimposition is not text, but music notations, song girlover a picture of a young woman in a starched dress. The net effect is of a wonderful, music-filled silence: it’s almost shocking that suddenly the voice of the text goes missing. A host, literally, of possible interpretations sprang into my mind. First, it seems the first time that the portrayed person is granted an inward subjectivity that is not defined by servitude or the African diaspora. Second, it implies an inward space of art that is not about struggle or pain, but about something beautiful and burgeoning. Third, it brought immediately to mind the chapter headings of W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, which are characterized by a musical staff and notes along with lyrics of spirituals and, of course, the text of the book (see example below). It’s a beautiful moment of intertextuality, a kind of homage to DuBois and his insistence that music was one of the treasures of black American life—and that African-American-created music Chapter opening of Souls of Black Folkwas as dignified an art form as writing. (Weems was instrumental in the creation of a peony dedicated to DuBois, so let us keep that in mind as we analyze.) Fourth, it marks, I think, the place where the “American” in “African-American” becomes dominant. The young woman portrayed is conversant with Western music; it defines her as much as ancestry.

Of course, darker interpretations come to mind as well. It is the first time a character is unvoiced, which could be interpreted as a photograph about a robbed identity, not a burgeoning one. One could read the photograph as the superimposition of Western culture and attendant false consciousness over the African roots of the people—the silencing of the princess, as it were.

One could, but I don’t. There is such a dignified stance and level gaze in the photograph that I think we are to admire and observe her subjectivity and pass by with silent respect. The point to me is that Weems’s work offers such a multiplicity of reads. So, more to come.

I would love to know what the music is. Any reader having an idea, please e-mail me!

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4 thoughts on “Carrie Mae Weems Is Wow, Part I

  1. Wonderful post. I liked the way you summarized by posing possible interpretations –
    When she was 46, my older sister, went back to school and earned her PhD at Cornell for Literature – specializing in Native American Studies. She was planning to return to teaching, but segued into Environmental Conservancy – her other passion. At 52, she’s fighting to preserve open space and I’m very proud of her passionate commitment.
    AnnMarie

  2. Thanks for a great post. I too was blown away by the exhibition at the Guggenheim in April. I’m actually teaching “From Here I Saw What Happened…” in my American Studies course and wanted to let you know that the music sheet and lyrics are the second verse of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.” Holiday is mentioned directly in the text superimposed over the photo of the slave with the horribly lacerated back, although the song mentioned there is “Strange Fruit.” How would you fit that into your analysis?

    • Thanks so much for this! I’ve wanted to know what the music is for months. In terms of how it fits into the analysis–I think it buttresses the observation that the European-US tradition is *her* tradition, and weakens any potential argument that the lack of words means she is unvoiced.

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