Detail from, “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried” (1995–96)
“Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video,” Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, Stanford, through January 5, 2014
Perhaps not since Frida Kahlo, has a visual artist so brazenly inserted her own likeness into her creations. Thankfully, this preoccupation with self eventually extends into a larger world, the world of African Americans and their identification as such.
Often, when Weems is both photographer and subject, as in the “Kitchen Table Series,” the photographs seem narcissistic, as if the artist is her own muse. This may very well be the case. But although Weems has once again placed herself in front of the camera in the “Museum Series” and “Not Manet’s Type,” these latter photographs are arresting and poignant. Here Weems has metamorphosed from simply being the source of her own inspiration. Now she paints an isolating portrait of what many are afraid of being or becoming – phantoms and outsiders.
Most of Weems’s photographs are black and white or tinted. One series of tinted photographs — “Colored People Grid” — is striking in its simplicity. When juxtaposed next to “Family Pictures and Stories,” the empty spaces make one wonder: Are there people missing? If yes, who? What are their stories? Will these stories be told and if so, who will tell them? How will they be told? These it seems, are precisely the questions that Weems has been asking all along. She has done a good job excavating truths and untruths and in so doing, has helped create a new history of the African American experience. That she cannot tell it without telling her own story has been her point all along.
In these tinted photographs — part of the series, “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried” (1995–96)” — the artist appropriated early photographs and text that have been used to stereotype African Americans:
The artist as photographer and subject
All photos credit of the artist, Carrie Mae Weems