Nick Moss reviews the Weems exhibition, on at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, till 3 September. Image above: Carrie Mae Weems, If I Ruled the World, 2004, © Jemima Yong
My responsibility as an artist is to work, to sing for my supper, to make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals; to beautify the mess of a messy world, to heal the sick and feed the helpless; to shout bravely from the roof-tops and storm barricaded doors and voice the specifics of our historic moment – Carrie Mae Weems
This exhibition represents the first major solo exhibition of Carrie Mae Weems in a UK institution. The fact is surprising, as Weems is an established and successful artist in the US. The Barbican ‘s curators have worked with Weems to bring together an impressive, challenging exhibition which documents the variety of Weems’ artistic practice, conducted across photographic series, films, and installations spanning over three decades.
Weems’ is a proudly activist art and can be refreshingly blunt and direct. So much art which claims to be political is shamefacedly allusive and mealy-mouthed. There is none of that here. Neither is this an art which avoids beauty or melancholy, but all such representations are rooted throughout in a desire to use art as a confrontation with America’s history of brutal racism and to trigger meaningful change.
Carrie Mae Weems, Reflections for Now, Installation view, Barbican Art Gallery, 2023 © Jemima Yong
The works that open the exhibition are from the series Painting the Town; photographs of surfaces where graffiti in support of Black Lives Matter or in commemoration of George Floyd have been painted over, by racists, using black paint. Some reviews and commentary have made much of how these photographs conjure a form of abstract expressionism, but I don’t think that’s all that Weems intends. This is about censorship, pure and simple. Any image of abstraction is entirely accidental – a by-product of the obliteration of the black voice from public space.
If anything, the reference would be back to Malevich’s 1924 Black Circle, albeit with an entirely opposite intent. Whereas Malevich intended the affirmative, the iconic – the obliteration here of anti-racist text is entirely negative and censorious. If the photographs are shot so as to highlight this chance abstraction, then there may be an implicit critique, at work on 2 levels – abstract art as a displacement of the politically committed art of the preceding era, and the removal of black artists like Norman Lewis and Jack Whitten from the history of abstract art. The Painting the Town works are a good example of Weems’ practice – you think at first that the works give up their meaning easily, but they hold you and force you to think harder about your encounter with them.
Carrie Mae Weems, A Hot Spot in a Corrupt World from And 22 Million Very Tired and Angry People, 1991, Barbican Art Gallery, 2023 © Jemima Yong
Weems’ earliest works, such as A Hot Spot in a Corrupt World, use the disjunction between text and image to provocative effect. In the subsequent series, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 1995-96, Weems makes use of a series of pictures of enslaved African Americans taken by photographer Joseph T. Zealy in 1850. Commissioned by the Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz, these were intended solely to support racist theories about the inferiority of Black people. The sitters are displayed simply as anthropological specimens. The photographs are bookended by images of a royal Mangbetu woman witnessing the crudely racist display. Weems infiltrates and disrupts the images, simply by cropping, tinting them and reframing them and overlaying fragments of texts that expose and subvert the original intent.
The work for which Carrie Mae Weems is probably best known, the Kitchen Table series, stages a series of domestic portraits which show the development of a feminist consciousness from within the confines of a family relationship, with the characters wrestling with various forms of interpersonal dependency, oppression and, at the same time, friendship and haven. The photographs are accompanied by texts which sometimes mirror what we see, at other times seem to stand in contradiction to it, so that the participants are shown to develop their particular awareness as a working-through of each situation as it unfolds.
Weems uses the juxtaposition of text and image in her work in fascinating ways – sometimes to highlight, sometimes to trick, always thereby to expose how images are constructed and how ideologies manifest in visual form. In her 2008 Constructing History series she has her students restage and photograph historical events-Hiroshima, the JFK assassination, the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King – working out how little is now required to conjure the event given the extent to which each event has been overlaid by the accrual of various earlier stagings, interpretations, edits etc. When we understand an event as a specific image-form, how much do we really understand of it?
By overlaying the Evers/Malcolm/MLK assassinations, for instance, Weems asks what do we really know of the specificity of the assassinations, how much are they obscured by the media interventions which strip them of their historicity, how much of this is deliberate, and how much simply a product of the technology of mediation. By unpicking the theatre, the performance of photographic representations, we are made to look at the events afresh.
The most ambitious work here, and the most recent, is The Shape of Things, Weems’ 2021 film projected as a cyclorama on a wide, curved screen. The film is in seven parts and splices old footage of circus performers and slapstick with live films of Trump rallies and the 6 January mob crashing the Washington Capitol. We are asked to imagine how it is to live when you are always stopped, always charged, always convicted, always killed. Scenes of police violence are cut with the voiceover of a white woman ranting hysterically about being attacked by a black man in Central Park (in fact a black male birdwatcher asking her politely to put her dog on a leash.)
We are told to imagine the worst, and that it never stops recurring. The Shape of Things works because of its scale, its overwhelming, disorientating, impact, like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, faced with that single catastrophe that brings about a storm to propel him towards the future while “piling wreckage upon wreckage and (hurling it) at his feet.”
The Shape of Things leaves us dazed and despairing but feeling that we have somehow to act if only so that we can find our way through the wreckage and disorientation to somewhere else. (There is an adjacent film which features Weems giving a lecture about an encounter with Trump, which doesn’t work at all, because it is portentous and indulges in a “when they go low, we go high” moralizing that fits ill with the subversive rage she displays more generally.)
Carrie Mae Weems, Lincoln, Lonnie and Me, A Story in 5 Parts, 2012, Barbican Art Gallery, 2023 © Jemima Yong
Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 5 Parts, is one of the most extraordinary works I’ve seen in recent times. The work consists of an eighteen-and-a-half-minute video projection, where life-size figures float on a central stage framed by scarlet curtains. The figures are enveloped by mist or float ethereal in snow, interrupted by silence and succeeding each other. A tap dancer appears while Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground echoes out like an angry ghost.
Weems appears, dressed as a trickster, and snarling “I am gonna destroy ya, because I want you to feel the suffering that I know. It’s not gonna be pretty, Oh! Revenge is a muthafucka.” She recites Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. Neil Diamond sings Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon. The artist/activist Lonnie Graham talks of the difficulty of achieving meaningful social change. All of this is displayed using a technique developed in 1862 by John Henry Pepper, the director of London’s Royal Polytechnic Institution and a critic of spiritualist discourses, who wanted to expose the theatrical tricks exploited by fake mediums and con artists.
Pepper’s namesake technique enables objects and actors to appear onstage as projected spectral images, by means of a simple optical manipulation: a pane of glass is placed at a forty-five-degree angle between the stage and a hidden adjoining chamber, or “blue room,” located beneath it. When appropriately illuminated, objects and actors in the chamber appear on the glass and before the audience as dematerialized versions of themselves. Thus, on one level we might see the Pepper technique as a form of ideology critique, in that it is intended straightforwardly as a tool to expose illusion.
But, as always, Weems asks us to think again, look harder, because the technique also serves to allow the ghosts of a history not yet realized , the “unfinished work” of the Gettysburg address, to haunt the stage. Lincoln, Lonnie and Me is what a mash-up of Blind Willie Johnson, Kenneth Anger, William Kentridge and the Black Panther Party might look like and it is magnificent.
Carrie Mae Weems’ retrospective shows us what art which engages with the possibility of political change can accomplish, if the artist is resolute and determined to combine a rage proper to the times with an unwillingness to compromise aesthetic vision. In her Roaming photographs, Weems, graceful, ethereal, haunts the drawing rooms and balconies of the architecture of fascist Italy. Weems often works through a concept of intrusion into the frame which allows her to develop a critique of racial oppression and the images which sustains it, by an interruption immanent to the image itself, a disruption of its internal logic. In the ruins of ancient Rome and the opulent posturing of fascist Italy, her presence as counter-position works as a kind of victory.
Nick Moss is an ex-prisoner, published poet, reviewer and playwright. His book "Swear Down" is published by Smokestack Books, see here.