Don’t Blink: The Life of Carrie Mae Weems to Watch
By Max Bleu
Special to Examiner
Carrie Mae Weems looks at the world with the unwavering eye of someone who has seen it all. Over the past 40+ years, the photographer has recounted her personal experience as a black woman, often in the context of the civil rights movement in America, and has explored questions of identity in the history of art herself. same. Weems’ aptly titled career retrospective at the Fraenkel Gallery, Witness, offers a large selection of photographs (and a video), which highlight the artist’s great attention to cultural dynamics and the extent of his ability to tell stories.
Weems is as much a photographer as he is a student – and challenger – of historical narratives, and has always been aware of how individual experience correlates with time. Her personal website, for example, features a long autobiographical timeline that includes her personal events as well as cultural and historical events that have marked her life. Between “1965, is interested in the arts” and “on December 11, 1969, gives birth to an only child”, Weems inserted “1968, Murder of Martin Luther King”. These additions provide context to Weems’ experience as a black American artist.
The show features two impressions of Weems’ escape Kitchen table series, in which the photographer uses the titular frame to stage interactions between various characters. Untitled (I play the harmonica), 1990, shows a couple having dinner, the man, seated at the end of the table, playing a tune above his plate, while the woman (Weems), seated in profile, seems to be singing. In Untitled (Man reading the newspaper) 1990-99, the man occupies the same position, bending over daily news, while Weems stands behind him in a bathrobe and lingerie, massaging his shoulders. These scenes of domestic life present both cultural and romantic expectations. A book bringing together the entire series is also available for reading at the gallery and features Weems’ narrative prose to accompany the photos, adding greater depth to his commentary.
In the diptych You became a granny, mum, mother, then, yes, confident-Ha / Descending the Throne You became an infantryman and a cook 1995-96, Weems appropriates images of black slaves from the Harvard archives. Weems had engraved the title text on the glass framing his photos. The woman and man watching behind these one-sentence stories represent both an early use of the black body by a white photographer and their powerful recontextualization by a black. In this process of retrieving images and complicating them with adding text, Weems recovers a certain agency for individuals physically stolen from their homeland.
In another exploration of the historical implication of the black body, Weems collaborated with famous black painter Robert Colescott on the triptych Framed by modernism, 1997, which dramatizes the relationship between model and artist. The painter, who had asked Weems to photograph him, is standing in the foreground, leaning against a painting. A number of his paintings hang and lean against the walls of the room behind him, while a naked Weems is relegated to a corner, taking on various classic poses. The play asks what it means to be remembered in history or erased – or to exist somewhere in between: both seen and unseen. While this experience may be that of many female role models throughout modernism as uncredited subjects, it also supersedes the black experience in America: physically responsible for the formation of the nation through slave labor, in the lack of compensation and will.
In The Louvre, 2006, and American Monuments I, 2005-6, Weems is once again physically positioning itself as a historical challenger. The images echo each other visually: Weems, clad in a flowing black gown, stands in front of the French Museum in one photo and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in the other, her silhouette diminished by the towering monoliths of art and l American history. Weems’ physical presence, however, both due to and despite his smallness in relation to the buildings, acts as a challenge to the historical accounts these structures represent. Weems’ use of his body as a signifier of a greater cultural experience speaks both of how we are perceived and how we play: we all occupy roles, both chosen and imposed, but for many who do not fit the largely privileged demographics of white or male, their arbitrary assignment as lesser may be a death sentence.
The video piece of about 14 minutes, People of a darker shade, 2016, compiles shots of protesters during Black Lives Matter protests and viral footage of police violence, interspersed with clippings of a staged scene in which a black man runs on a treadmill in slow motion. The visual symbolism is direct and striking – the man runs, but goes nowhere – correlated with the counterweight to the progress of protest and the constant recoil that the very need to protest in the first place is. The film, Weems says in his voiceover, commemorates “all those who died and those who endured.” It then lists the names, ages and professions of several black men and women victims of police violence. This is another way in which Weems serves as a witness, narrator and historian of culture.
If the photographer’s job is to see what is there, Weems made it his mission to visually represent the invisible: from the intangible forces of racism and classism to their often overlooked physical manifestations. As Witness attests it, this work was carried out not only by a masterful character, but by an artist not afraid to make room for the struggles of the artists Black American Women (and all the fields in which these identifiers intersect). In a lifetime of watching history, Weems let the record show that she won’t be the first to blink.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
What : Carrie Mae Weems: “Witness”
Or: Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St., 4th Floor, San Francisco
When: Tuesday to Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., until November 13
Contact: fraenkelgallery.com, (415) 981-2661