(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)
It may be objected that what each individual can change is very little. This is true up to a point. But since each person can join others who want the same changes, he can multiply himself an imposing number of times. If the change desired is “rational,” historically possible, then even a very radical change can be achieved, one that did not seem possible at first sight. – Antonio Gramsci (Excerpt from banner text in Carries Mae Weems’ installation)
Carrie Mae Weems’ art is one of the most unprepossessing and powerful bodies of work being produced today. It’s humble, angry, blatant and dignified. It relentlessly explores aesthetic and psychological forms of memory in order to unveil stereotypes and contextualize social change. All that and a self-reflexive ability to remember to laugh once in a while too.
Since memory bespeaks history and the realization of change, Weems’s use of mnemonic, or passionately compressed memory devices, plays a large role in her work. Representations of strife and personal longing erased from the recent “collective” past – as well as enormous class disparities rendered invisible today – are the images and concepts Weems specifically mines and reclaims with single-minded clarity.
Her work comprises ongoing series of beautiful objects, assembled in installations which coax us closer to intense issues of gender, race and class – domains otherwise distanced and heavily mediated by the dominant culture. Weems’s approach is refreshing because it often betrays how polarized, perhaps (conveniently) manipulated and reactive our personal responses have become to these embattled sites of power. When I look at this work, I’m alerted to how each subgroup in our culture is prodded to scramble for ever diminishing table scraps, rather than identify as a cohesive force.
As an antidote, Weems effectively constructs a voice of great humility and nuance, which incites deeper study of intersecting struggles which cannot be examined as tidy, easily isolated problems, or, entertainment sound bytes. Her personal wit and integrity also keep her art from becoming a preachy manifesto. She’s keenly interested in simply showing how people’s lived experiences overlap.
Carrie Mae Weems was recently named the recipient of the 1992 Adaline Kent Award, which is bestowed annually by the San Francisco Art Institute’s Artist Committee on California artists of strength and promise. The award includes an honorarium, gallery exhibition (hence Weems’ current show in the SFAI’s Walter/McBean Gallery), public lecture and printed book. The 1992 Award Committee, which included D-L Alvarez, Peter Edlund and Yoland Lopez, summarized their selection of Weems as follows:
In the body of her work, one witnesses tremendous rage, presented in a direct and unconvoluted manner. With an unsettling reserve, Weems comments on the explosive “isms” of class, race, and sex. In this regard, she is neither ambiguous nor conventional, but tackles these issues with images and text that act as a series of Molotov cocktails waiting for a single match.
Her art-school training and graduate studies in folklore make Weems a particularly astute cultural critic and revisionist, reworking image pools which include spoken narratives, phrasings and dialect, and personal mementos, as well as photographic visual codes – from documentary images of the 1930s and pictures of ‘60s civil rights riots, to recently staged domestic tableaux with herself as a participant persona.
In fact, the title and centerpiece of the show itself, And 22 Million Very Tired and Very Angry People, is a reference to Richard Wright’s book, 12 Million Black Voices, which surprisingly, was one of the first books in this country to explore the play of captions against the newly mass-reproducible medium of photography.
Images in that book were culled from Farm Security Administration government files to document the huge migration of “freed” blacks from the South to the harsh industrial North in the 1920s and ‘30s. Weems disjoints and pays homage to this historical semiotic photo/text experiment by using its tag in her title. She also efficiently confounds any ideological dibs on “truth” by referencing a documentary photography that was anything but the apolitical window on the world it originally imagined itself to be and by enlisting the use of captions as a political tool.
In her series of 15 oversized Polaroid prints of isolated still-life objects (another visual practice of cataloging folk craft as static artifact by museums in the ‘30s), she affixes terse, ambiguous, provocative captions at the bottom of each image. The most potent combination is an image of a rolling pin where the title, “By Any Means Necessary,” visually catapults the viewer into an uncomfortable rhetoric of gender, private domestic violence and the public face of potentially radical political action.
The function of the silk-screened banners that hang from the gallery ceiling became apparent only by examining the sumptuous book Weems prepared to accompany her exhibition. There the banner quotes from historical figures like Rosa Luxemburg, Malcom X, Frantz Fanon and others appear as overlays to her photo/text panels. The sparsely honed use of translucent oversheets of palimpsests crystallized the feeling of an expansive crowd speaking in one voice.
Other installations in this show subtly dislodge memories from our other senses as well. “Ode to Affirmative Action” is a tribute to the role of the stage in early expressions of African-American culture, involving blues love refrains and gospel spirituals. In the “Midst of the Storm” is an installation of bottles of Black Pride body ointment and a screened wall text, which for me proposed an olfactory and primary sensuous remembrance, an image of the body beautiful, and the rampant proximities between desire, market niches and packaging.
What people want to hold onto and what they are willing to deny or selectively redress is represented in “Commemorating,” one of Weems’ strongest and most ambiguous works. This flip conceptual installation is an edgy and circular send-up in the form of a large group of plates bearing the names or groups of Americans who have taken heroic stands for social justice. This commemorative gold-rimmed display-ware ribs and dishes middle class platitudes. With bull’s eye aim Weems’ messages assault our sense of refined comfort and good taste. These shocking, fragile china emblems shake the dirt form our roots while critiquing some of our formal aesthetic conventions. Like everything Carrie Mae Weems does, they are incisive and unforgettable.