Stanford really scored when Carrie Mae Weems won a MacArthur Fellowship right before her retrospective opened at the Cantor Center. Not that I wouldn’t have gone without that bump, just that it was nice reminder to make that show the first thing for me to see when I got home for the holidays. It was worth it and it was brilliant.
Weems’s work is black-specific but manages to be inclusive and relevant to non-whites in general. This isn’t a case of an artist making work which the art establishment treats as black because of who she is. Weems is consciously and specifically addressing issues of representation and identity based on her experiences as a black woman. However, I found myself responding to much of her work as feeling consistent with my upbringing as a non-white. I’m still not exactly sure how she pulls it off but it’s a hell of a balancing act.
If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because so much of her work is explicitly about representation. She gets a camera and is introduced to photography. So, like so many other people, she begins shooting street in the style of people like Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. However she’s also aware of Roy DeCarava and James Van Der Zee and understands how important it is to represent herself and address the myths which society has used to define her. The rest of her work which follows consistently comes back at and attacks the stereotypes and myths which she grew up seeing. While those myths aren’t the same as what I felt growing up asian, the larger picture of calling out stereotypes and embracing your own representation rings true.
For example, her family photos and stories. These are all extremely personal but they’re also specifically reacting to the way black families are represented in the mainstream media as being broken and weak. Instead we get a lively, strong, large family (complete with men present). I particularly love the in-frame text providing individual vignettes for each photo.*
*Something which is unfortunately missing from her website presentation.
These photos transcend blackness and feel appropriate to working class non-white in general. They remind me of my wife’s family and family gatherings. They also suggest that a large reason of why I like The Jangs is because that series comes at the myth of the Asian family the way Weems comes right at the myth of the black family.
Similarly, her American Icons and Ain’t Jokin’ series take the stereotypes head on by explicitly illustrating them. A lot of this reminds me of Fred Wilson except that instead of putting the actual objects in the museum, Weems is photographing them. I look at the photos and also see direct relevance to the current arguments about Native American mascots and appropriation. Representing minorities as stereotyped objects is so insidious in how it quietly shapes how they perceive themselves.
Ain’t Jokin’ takes things a step further by actually posing people in black stereotypes (Tough girl. Watermelon man. Fried chicken eater). These photos only work when you know they’re an inside job but they also show exactly how these kinds of stereotypes shape our perceptions of ourselves. I found them incredibly funny but in a cruel black humor way.
They also show how even a “good” stereotype becomes baggage. Fried chicken and watermelon are delicious and I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t like them. At the same time, I can totally see a a black kid trying to avoid those foods just because they’re stereotypical. That minority kids aspire to white bread, kraft singles, and blister-pack bologna because it’s what the white kids eat is a horrible state of affairs.
I found myself picturing other series by other minorities addressing their specific stereotypes. Like say a mexican woman holding a baby or an asian with a calculator. In many ways I think this is the best way to call BS on the whole thing.
Which brings us to the Kitchen Table Series. These are selfies, but not. Self-portraits are a very different thing than self-representation. Weems is drawing on Frida Kahlo here and carving out her own space rather than fitting into the standard male artist view of women. This is the flip side of both Cindy Sherman’s work* and the Ain’t Jokin’ series. Weems is using herself to represent what isn’t represented. The result is a series which feels appropriate to almost every woman, but especially non-whites.
*Not self portraits but directly confronting stereotypes of women by presenting them.
This series is also the first big instance of Weems using herself in her work as a representative of concepts larger than herself. That she’s able to do this consistently and make it work so well is a testament to her skill.
The concept of representation continues through the exhibition and is a reminder of how much context and the creator of a photo matters. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, it’s fascinating to compare Colored People, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, and African Jewels. Photography is so much more than just the photos themselves. Who took the photos matters. As does the way things are displayed. As does the relationship between the subject and the photographer. We forget this a lot of the time. Weems continuously reminds us to think about the intent behind the images, the way they’re displayed, and the agency—or lack thereof*—in the representation.
*Especially by Weems choosing to caption images using the passive voice.
The other nice thing about this exhibition is to see Weems just grow as a photographer. It’s not that her earlier work is not good, but her technique keeps improving to the point where her later work leaps off the wall. In particular, her photos from Gullah, the Slave Coast, and Africa are great photos which evoke a sense of place.
And there’s still so much more going on in them. There’s a focus on typography, word origins, and signage which reminds me of both Walker Evans and how all these locations are trade zones full of cultural mixing. There are specific items and tools pictured which I’ve seen in other museums as if they are ancient artifacts when in fact they’re modern. They work much better in-situ with the context that they are still in use and without the implication that Africa is a primitive backwater stuck using millennia-old technology.
I especially love the gendered buildings photos.
Her photos from Rome, Cuba, and Louisiana are also great in a way which makes me rethink my dislike of travel photography. These aren’t exactly travel photos. But they also kind of are. Heck, they’re almost the worst kind of travel photography in being travel selfies which emphasize the difference between the traveler and the location.
A black women traveling and taking photos in colonial or racist places completely changes everything.
That she’s there—proudly—means something. Says something. White guy photography may bore me. Flipping the privilege dynamic on its head does not.
There’s a lot of other work in this show which I haven’t mentioned. A lot of it is also very good. I just didn’t have specific reactions to it the way I did to the pieces here. I also find myself responding most to the representation questions that Weems raises and thinking how to deal with the stereotypes I’ve internalized as I’ve grown up. We’re always so tempted to run from them. Confronting everything head on like Weems does is a better tack.