Carrie Mae Weems looks at the world with the unflinching eye of someone who has seen it all. Over the past 40-plus years, the photographer has chronicled her personal experience of being a Black woman, often within the context of the civil rights movement in America, and explored questions of identity in art history itself. Weems’ aptly titled career retrospective at Fraenkel Gallery, “Witness,” offers a broad selection of photographs (and one video), which highlight the artist’s keen attentiveness to cultural dynamics and the breadth of her storytelling ability.
Weems is as much a photographer as she is a student — and challenger — of historical narratives, and has always been conscious of the way in which the individual experience correlates to time. Her personal website, for example, features an autobiographical timeline, in which she includes not only her own life events but cultural and historical events that have informed her life. In between “1965, becomes interested in the arts” and “December 11, 1969, gives birth to only child,” Weems has inserted “1968, Assassination of Martin Luther King.” These additions give context to Weems’ experience of being a Black American artist.
The show features two prints from Weems’ breakout “Kitchen Table” series, in which the photographer employs the titular setting to stage interactions among various characters. “Untitled (Playing harmonica),” 1990, shows a couple eating dinner, the man, seated at the head of the table, playing a tune over his dinner plate, while the woman (Weems), seated in profile, appears to be singing along. In “Untitled (Man reading newspaper)” 1990–99, the man occupies the same position, hunched over the daily news, while Weems stands behind him in her bathrobe and lingerie, massaging his shoulders. These scenes of domestic life present expectations of both cultural and romantic dynamics. A book collecting the entire series is also available for perusal at the gallery, and features Weems’ narrative prose to accompany the photos, adding greater depth to her commentary.
In the diptych “You Became Mammie, Mama, Mother, Then, Yes, Confident-Ha/Descending the Throne You Became Foot Soldier & Cook” 1995-96, Weems appropriated pictures of Black slaves from the Harvard archives. Weems had etched the title text onto the glass framing her pictures. The woman and man who stare out from behind these one-sentence stories represent both an early use of the Black body by a white photographer and their powerful recontextualization by a Black one. In this process of reclaiming the images and complicating them with the addition of the text, Weems steals back some agency for individuals physically stolen from their homeland.
In another exploration of the historical implication of the Black body, Weems collaborated with the renowned Black painter Robert Colescott on the triptych “Framed by Modernism,” 1997, which dramatizes the relationship of the model and the artist. The painter, who had asked Weems to photograph him, stands in the foreground, leaning against a chalkboard. A number of his paintings hang on and lean against the walls of the room behind him, while a nude Weems is relegated to the corner, striking various classical poses. The piece asks what it means to be remembered in history or erased – or to exist somewhere in between: both seen and unseen at once. While this experience might be that of many female models throughout modernism as uncredited subjects, it also stands in for the Black experience in America: physically responsible for the shaping of the nation via slave labor, in the absence of compensation and willingness.
In “The Louvre,” 2006, and “American Monuments I,” 2005-6, Weems again positions herself physically as a challenger of history. The pictures echo each other visually: Weems, garbed in a flowing black dress, stands before the French museum in one photo, and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in the other, her figure diminished by the towering monoliths of art and American history. Weems’ physical presence, however, both because of and in spite of its smallness compared to the buildings, acts as a challenge to the historical narratives these structures represent. Weems’ use of her body as a signifier for a greater cultural experience speaks to both how one is perceived and how one performs: We all occupy roles, both chosen and thrust upon us, but for many who do not fit the largely privileged demographics of white or male, their arbitrary assignation as lesser can be a death sentence.
The roughly 14-minute video piece, “People of a Darker Hue,” 2016, compiles shots of people at Black Lives Matter protests and viral footage of police violence, interspersed with cuts of a staged scene in which a Black man runs on a treadmill in slow motion. The visual symbolism is direct and striking — the man is running, but getting nowhere — correlating to the counterbalance of the progress of protest and the constant setback that is the very need to protest in the first place. The film, Weems says in her voiceover, commemorates “all of the fallen, and those who have endured.” She goes on to list the names, ages and professions of several Black men and women who were victims of police violence. This is another way in which Weems serves as a witness, a narrative maker and a cultural historian.
If the job of the photographer is to see what’s there, Weems has made it her life work to visually represent the invisible: from the intangible forces of racism and classism to their often overlooked physical manifestations. As “Witness” attests, this work has been carried out by someone unafraid to hold space for the struggles of Black American Women artists (and all the areas in which those identifiers intersect). Through a lifetime of staring down history, Weems has let the record show that she won’t be the one to blink first.
IF YOU GO
Carrie Mae Weems: “Witness”
Where: Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St., fourth floor, S.F.
When: 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays; through Nov. 13
Contact: fraenkelgallery.com, (415) 981-2661