by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
Carrie Mae Weems should need no introduction—she came to prominence in the early 1980s through photographic work that questions how the representation of the Black subject, particularly within the United States, has historically reproduced systemic racism and inequality. Her expansive body of work using photography, text, images, and sound delving into African-American archives and histories has been collected by major museums, received multiple accolades, and was the first work to be shown by a living African-American artist in a solo exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2014. Still, despite this, Weems remains far less prominent than other contemporaries who similarly subvert dominant narratives through photography such as Cindy Sherman.
Now, in 2023, her most comprehensive retrospective exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery in London does justice to her decades-long engagement with tackling historical erasure, racialised and gendered identities, and radical social change through image-making. Reflections for Now is a monumental show, filling two floors of the Barbican and spanning 30 years of Weems’s career.
On entering the space, visitors are met with the shock of seeing works that don’t seem to be photographs at all. Marking a departure from much of her oeuvre in which the human body occupies a central space, these works present wide swathes of monochromatic colour, in almost Rothko-esque frames instead. These are no riffs on Franz Kline; they are actually photographs Weems made of walls in Portland, Oregon that were originally painted over with slogans from the Black Lives Matter movement, following George Floyd’s extrajudicial murder by the police. The abstract blocks of colour are in fact marks of erasure—black, brown, grey and yellow paint that have been used by the authorities to cover up slogans and other signs of dissent.
It is a neat trick by Weems—presenting the audience with what seems to be abstract, apolitical, purely aesthetic even, before revealing that the works are in fact the visual representation of real-time erasure and about the fraught question of which bodies and voices are allowed to exist in public spaces.
This inquiry into bodies, spaces, and how the power dictates how history chooses to remember them animates much of Weems’ practice. No work of art exemplifies this more than From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, a series Weems created in 1995-96. The series resuscitates harrowing archival anthropological images commissioned by a notable Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz to support racist theories about the inferiority of Black people.
The works depict enslaved people, stripped down to nakedness—the images are one among many taken during the history of anthropology, treating non-white people as anthropological specimens, stripping them of their personhood. In Weems’ series, she applies a red filter with text composed by her superimposed over the images, drawing us into a conversation about the intentions behind these pictures and what purpose they were originally intended for. Her approach towards the violence inherent in them is an unflinching directness—one that sees the images as visual evidence of a process of dehumanisation of black bodies and points out, to put it simply, how utterly horrific that history is.
At the Barbican, Weems moves beyond these historical inquiries into contemporary visualities—videos circulated on social media, snippets from the coverage of Trump rallies, Black Lives Matter protests, the hysterical voice of a white woman calling the cops on a black man in Central park who was in fact birdwatching, spliced from a viral video. Through The Shape of Things, a film made by Weems in 2021 and projected on a curved screen, Weems creates an assemblage capturing the link between historical structural oppression and this contemporary moment of polarisation and racial tension. The sound from this 40-minute work leaks over into the other galleries, where it serves as an eerie bridge between the future and the past.
Other works include Constructing History (2008), in which Weems worked with students, staging landmark moments from 20th century history such as the assassination of JFK to interrogate how they still affect our present, and the Kitchen Table Series—perhaps one of her most famous photographic works. Made in 1990, the work brings all of the questions at the forefront of Weems' practice—power, gender, and race—and has them unfold in various domestic scenarios she stages around one kitchen table, bringing them to the scale of the intimate and personal.
Throughout the show, Weems engages in revealing how this complex web of dynamics that ascribes power to certain actors makes itself known in how we relate to each other—in the streets, in protest, at home, in quietude, and in the annals of history. It is fitting that this show titled Reflections for Now itself operates as a reflective space—not only unfolding archival visualities but also reflecting on the contemporary moment back to us in a manner in which the medium is the message.