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Witness to History

Carrie Mae Weems: From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried

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Carrie Mae Weems: From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried

at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, through April 20

By Mark Swartz

One of my favorite works of art from this decade is Carrie Mae Weems's By Any Means Necessary, a color photograph of a rolling pin with the title printed below. Although it's a simple composition, its immediate effect is indescribable: when I see a rolling pin, before I think of the word for it I think of the club traditionally brandished by the woman of the house. When I first saw this symbol joined with Malcolm X's famous pledge, the experience permanently changed the words from a black nationalist motto to a statement about African-American life--or, more precisely, an indication of female authority in the black household. That theme has motivated Weems since her career began in 1978, the year she came across Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 report, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." It suggested that black people's matriarchal system was partly to blame for their problems.

Another good thing about Weems's rolling pin is that it doesn't hit you over the head. In her work she orchestrates clashes between picture and text that point to racial imbalances in America without ever spelling out exactly what she has to say. Over the years her photographs of black people have served as guilt-magnifying backgrounds to racist jokes and riddles and as half-ironic illustrations of narratives about herself and her family. In her "Colored People" series (1989-'90), she tinted photographs of black people with the colors they used to describe their skin: "golden yella," "violet," "blue black," and "burnt orange."

The texts in her current exhibition at Rhona Hoffman, "From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried," resemble the one for the rolling pin picture and those for the color and the autobiographical series, but not those for the series on racist jokes: they amplify a voice from within the black community. This time, it's the voice of a preacher sermonizing about black people's complicity in their oppression. "You became the joker's joke," the preacher accuses. "You became an accomplice." "You became a scientific profile." "You became Uncle Tom." Weems wrote these words, which are sandblasted into the glass of the picture frames, but clearly she doesn't intend them to be taken at face value, any more than she did when she asked, "What's a cross between an ape and a nigger?" Weems is re-presenting the rhetoric of collective black guilt--self-doubt and the accusation of other blacks under the guise of "personal responsibility," as recently espoused by Louis Farrakhan at the Million Man March--in order to show the inhumanity of its applications.

For most of this show Weems has used archival photographs of black people, apparently from the late 1800s and early 1900s, tinted them a furious red, and presented them in a circular format. So while the words are in an assumed voice and the pictures are not her own, her voice is heard by dint of the juxtaposition of word and image--and, more important, by the overall presentation and installation of the exhibit. The first strategy is different in every picture: depending on the image, the words of the text may seem harsh, ridiculous, or inappropriate. In the photograph accompanying the text "You became an accomplice," a light-skinned black woman in heavy makeup and an evening gown appears depressed and more than a little uncomfortable with her surroundings, which might be a Harlem jazz club. We imagine she's there of her own accord but don't blame her for going to a nightclub, nor do we see how she's thereby contributed to urban blight, institutionalized racism, or job discrimination. As someone who rarely enjoys himself at such places, I think I know how she feels: this experience has nothing to do with race or being an "accomplice."

The nude woman in the picture labeled "You became playmate to the patriarch" looks like she's trying to concentrate on anything besides what she's doing: posing spread-eagled for the camera. While I can see that one black woman might be ticked off at another for playing even a small part in the sex business, the grandiloquence of the sermon adds insult to the injury of taking that position in the first place. The woman in the picture seems to be saying, I didn't strip off all my clothes just so you could write your message across my body.

The exhibit has been hung to subvert the usual counterclockwise gallery shuffle. The pictures mean something when viewed one at a time, but for the richer historical narrative to unfold they have to be taken in all at once, from the middle of the room. The red-tinted archival photos are contrasted with three groupings of square, untinted black-and-white photographs Weems took herself. These pictures, arranged near the gallery entrance, show unpopulated doorways and passages in rural Africa. Each grouping is accompanied by a text; one of them evokes the brutal practices of the African slave trade: "Grabbing snatching blink and you be gone."

The title of the exhibit, "From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried," derives from the texts of two companion works, both rectangular and blue, hanging on opposite walls of the gallery, at two ends of an imaginary line dividing the room so that the African pictures are on one side and the American pictures on the other. These images of a black woman's profile exactly mirror each other, and if you stand at the point equidistant between the pictures and face the same direction as the woman, it seems you are "here," seeing through her eyes: that is, looking on at the early history of black people in America, with the memories of abductions in Africa right behind you. In the geometric terms Weems presents, the African past is square and 19th-century America is circular, and the exhibit is about the violence with which square pegs were forced into round holes. In terms of color, Africa is black and white, like a dream or distant memory, and America is red, the color of blood and anger.

Like the artist, the woman seen in profile in the two companion pictures is a persuasive, not a coercive guide. Rather than indulging in guilt mongering or playing the tired game of identity politics, Weems chooses to bear witness to history ("From here I saw what happened") and to make her feelings known ("and I cried"). She's a good writer and an accomplished photographer, but she wisely chooses to tell this familiar story by collapsing other people's voices and photographs and allowing the tale to emerge through repetition, contrast, and suggestion.

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