Over the course of her decades-long career, Carrie Mae Weems has repeatedly demonstrated how adept she is at navigating the human experience. Yet she does so while making her audiences consider uncomfortable questions. Her early photo series "Colored People" consists of black-and-white portraits of African-American children tinted with shades whose names, coined by Weems, double as descriptions of their skin tones—Blue Black Boy and Golden Yella Girl, for example—which historically have played a role in determining the social hierarchies of black communities. The more recent "Museums" project shows the artist, her back to the camera, standing in front of international art museums, drawing attention to notions of power and architecture as well as to the collecting practices of the institutions themselves. These themes and more show up in Ritual and Revolution, a small but powerful installation originally created in 1998, on view now at the Block Museum.
The artwork is meant to envelop the viewer. Audio plays on a loop: it's Weems reading a poetic narrative invoking different moments in history. "I was with you in the / ancient ruins of time," her voice intones. "Out of the shadows / from the edge of the new world / I saw your slow persistent emergence / and I saw you spinning Jenny's cotton into gold."
When you enter the gallery you encounter the first of several layers of muslin banners hanging from the ceiling. Each banner is digitally printed with a black-and-white image that recalls a historical moment of radical transformation: the French Revolution, the Middle Passage. The fabrics are arranged in a way that allows visitors the space to move through the works and see them from all sides.
The first banner, centered between two other pieces, is a photo of the artist dressed as the Queen of May in a flowing dress and with flowers in her hair. Traditionally a figure in pagan rituals celebrating the start of spring, the May Queen is a perfect intermediary for the subjects in this show—she invokes both the renewal and hope inherent in spring as well as May Day's contemporary connotation as International Workers Day.
By inserting herself into the piece through her image and her voice, Weems also serves as an observer of past events. She bears witness to a 1963 civil rights demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama; she's among Hopi women in Arizona. Weems has said that she's not a political artist, though one can't help but view her work through that lens. She's clearly concerned with understanding humanity, exposing our darkest moments, and helping to envision new realities. In an era that feels plagued by defeats, the historical struggles depicted in Ritual and Revolution are a helpful reminder of how much has already been won. v