Carrie Mae Weems

Over the course of the past two decades, American artist Carrie Mae Weems has built an enviable reputation as being one of the most interesting contemporary artists whose practice focuses unflinchingly on what we might possibly refer to as racial narratives. Along with artists such as Pat Ward Williams and Albert Chong, it might perhaps be more accurate to describe Weems as using photography, rather than being a photographer. Though she is not – in a conventional sense at least – a photographer, her stock-in-trade is the photographic image. She uses photographs as a means of animating and graphically illustrating potent debates and her own unique perceptions about culture, history and identity, and how such concerns are irreversibly intertwined with the photographic medium. One of the reasons that her work is so compelling is because she consistently takes as a starting point for her practice the view, the belief, that the photograph can never simply be a dispassionate nor unbiased visual representation. Instead, photography is perhaps the most loaded of media, frequently used against particular groups of people...

... Within her practice Weems often makes generous yet considered use of text. To this end, her work has developed a particularly recognisable aesthetic. While Weems’ work is well known within the US, this exhibition is the first opportunity that London audiences have of seeing an exhibition of her work. Strangely perhaps, those responsible for the exhibition have selected as the main body of the exhibition a work dating back to 1995. From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried consists of 32 photographic panels, each one an individual or group portrait of an African-American person or persons. The images range from those taken in the early decades of photography through to more recent times, though none of the images could be said to be from the present day. Though the source of each of the selected images is not stated, it’s clear that a number of them – such as Fireman in Uniform Holding a Brass Musical Instrument, c1850 – come from the archive documented in the 1995 publication Hidden Witness: African-American Images from the Dawn of Photography to the Civil War. In Weems’ own words ‘A commission to investigate a body of historical photo-images of blacks from the Getty Museum in 1995 led to … [this] feverishly toned polemic that integrated photography and text.’ To some of these images we can, without difficulty, attach narratives of explicit or implicit racism. Other images resonate with melancholy, suffering, survival and dignity, all things indicative of the seemingly unending ways that African people have been put through American hell from 1619 to the present day..

The above extracts are from an exhibition by Carrie Mae Weems,  Cafe Gallery Projects London June 8 to July 3, written by Eddie Chambers, in Art Monthly, Number 288, July/August 2005: 30-31