BY David Pagel in Reviews | 09 AUG 95
Featured in
Issue 24

Hidden Witness: African Americans in Early Photography, Carrie Mae Weems Reacts to 'Hidden Witnesses

BY David Pagel in Reviews | 09 AUG 95

This rare pairing of exhibitions juxtaposed more than 65 daguerreotypes, tintypes, ambrotypes and other early photographs of African-Americans made before, during and after the Civil War with about three dozen photographically enlarged pictures of people of African descent selected by Carrie Mae Weems. The images in 'Hidden Witness: African Americans in Early Photography' occupied the first, larger gallery, which was dimly lit to prevent the antique photos from fading. Set in elaborately engraved metal cases lined with velvet, these remarkable portraits of freemen, musicians, soldiers, mothers, couples and children were culled from the Getty's extensive holdings (under the direction of Weston Naef, Curator of Photographs), and from the private collection of Jackie Napolean Wilson, guest curator. Weems drew her reproductions, collectively titled 'Carrie Mae Weems Reacts to "Hidden Witness"', from a wide variety of unidentified sources, including the adjoining show.

Weems laid sheets of red plexiglass over all but two images (which were seen through blue-tinted plexiglass), and emblazoned an accusatory (red) or confessional (blue) text over each picture. These loaded, poem-like passages contrasted radically with Wilson's personal, poetic musings about the people in the 19th-century photographs. Where the collector-turned-curator freely speculated about the attitudes, feelings and personalities of the mostly anonymous sitters, Weems put together a thematically coherent story-board whose scenes frequently began with the pronoun 'You'. Though Wilson's impressionistic wall-labels had a naive, overly enthusiastic tone, they provided some useful historical information ­ about the shifting roles blacks played in the military; the impact new laws had on various segments of the black population in the North and the South; and the percentage of Southern whites who owned slaves and land, land only, or neither (a third in each category). Weems' pointed inscriptions dispensed with such precise information, instead telling a mythologised tale of a tragic, involuntary fall from grace that has not, to this day, been redeemed.

At the beginning and end of her salon-style parade of African-Americans under blood-red plexiglass (that literally forced viewers to see through a lens of symbolic anger), were two images of a bare breasted woman in tribal regalia, poised in regal profile like Queen Nefertiti. The cool, blue plexiglass of these two pictures visually distinguished them from the rest. Their texts ­ 'From Here I Saw What Happened' and 'And I Cried' ­ marked Weems' only use of the first person singular; paradoxically suggesting the distant perspective of Africa, from which the intervening images of various forms (and degrees) of slavery in the United States could be viewed. In almost all of the other pieces, Weems used the second person singular ­ you ­ to eliminate the distance between viewer and viewed. Written across the photo of a fireman were the words 'You became a whisper and symbol of a mighty voyage and by the sweat of your brow you laboured for self family and others'. Addressing African-American complicity in oppression, she placed the phrase 'You became playmate to the patriarch' over the image of a smiling reclining nude with her legs spread. A close-cropped torso of a man in a business suit whose unzipped pants reveal his penis, stated: 'Anything but what you were', pointing out that stereotypes dehumanise. Ensuring that whites were not left out as recipients of her point-blank messages, Weems overlaid the image of a black man's whip-scarred back with: 'Black and tanned your whipped wand of change howled low... smack in the middle of Ellington's orchestra'. Mediating between the people in the pictures and those in the gallery, the artist's written statements simultaneously addressed the depicted individuals and contemporary viewers while attempting to forge a link between the past and the present; to unite ancestral suffering with current injustices. Unfortunately, her manipulated photos had the impact of forgettable advertisements: although they immediately caught your eye with the lure of sex and the power of violence, they quickly faded from memory.

Unlike the small works in the other show, Weems' large, harsh pictures did not demand much reflection or inspire much thought. Leaving little room for viewer interpretation, they displaced one-to-one intimacy, drawn-out engagement and slow perusal, in favour of fast, distanced scanning meant to deliver the rage-fuelled message in a flash. The well-worn opposition in which detached, aesthetic contemplation is pitted against political efficacy fails to account for the differences between the two exhibitions. The first consisted of precious documents made for (and purchased by) individuals who cherished these pictures and actually used them to call to mind loved ones and loved times. The second show consisted of Conceptual art made for (and funded by) an institution that used valuable objects to give symbolic voice to once silenced members of society. The main difference between the exhibitions is that 'Hidden Witness' gave viewers something to look at and 'Carrie Mae Weems Reacts' downplayed the open-ended uncontrollability of the visible in favour of the determinism of the word.

The point is not that Weems is a bad artist, but that art world institutions, under the banner of multiculturalism, provide very limited roles for artists who supposedly fit into pre-determined categories. Indeed, Weems did her job exactly as she was instructed, accommodating her work to the Getty's programme. This programme is part of a nationwide institutional trend in which contemporary art is subjugated, with increasing frequency, to educational outreach under the rubric of community-building. Against this background, the Getty's invitation to Weems ­ to provide an exemplary reaction to 'Hidden Witness' ­ takes on a disturbing, racist cast. Putting forth a monkey-see, monkey-do argument, the paired exhibitions suggest that viewers need to be taught how to properly respond to the 150-year-old photographs. This is noblesse oblige at its most arrogant and condescending; it has no place in any institution.