PRINT February 1993


IN A TEXT PANEL in her recent photographic series “Sea Islands,” 1992, Carrie Mae Weems traces the African derivation of the Gullah dialect spoken on the Sea Islands off Georgia and South Carolina. “Gola Angola Gulla Gullah Geechee”: Weems’ citation performs a historical ellipsis, rhythmically connecting the region’s indigenous speech to the West African lands from which the inhabitants’ ancestors traveled, as slaves, in the 17th and 18th centuries. The artist’s allusion is also rife with ethnographic associations, however, inasmuch as Gullah is a key text in studies of the African contribution to American speech. To earlier, European scholars, Gullah appeared as a weak and simplified form of English, acquired by slaves through imitation of their captors, its reductions and elisions furnishing unequivocal proof of the English origins of “Negro” speech. But the concurrent erasure and appropriation of language implicit in this view were performed, as later research indicates, by outsiders without knowledge of the conditions of slavery, or of the distinctive character of African dialects. In this manner, the interpretation of Gullah presents yet another instance of the Eurocentric tendency to claim and subvert the cultures it confronts, reducing their status to one that is secondary, submitted, derived.

Weems is a folklorist by training, and much of her art tends toward the condensed form of the narrative vignette that encapsulates many-sided issues. The appropriation of the Gullah language, for example, is a metaphor for the confiscation of a history, and, with it, of African-American people’s claims to experience. The subjection of black people to white standards of imitation and the cultural colonization of black subjectivity result from this suppression—one that Weems would rectify by recovering black American experience through the formative encounter with Africa, or, rather, with its survivals in African-American culture. The difficulty of this quest for collective, rather than colonial, representations is obvious—how can black experience be “spoken” when there is no language to articulate it? Weems’ answer lies in intricate and imbricated textures of image and utterance, idiom and folkloric tale, that reposition the cultural past.

Weems defines herself as an image-maker, and her expansive and heteroclite vocabulary, which encompasses verbal systems, photographs, and mass-produced objects, can be seen as a strategic attempt to transform the representation of African-Americans, reconfiguring the experience of race. The scope of this effort to reclaim control over the imaging of blackness is evident in the current traveling exhibition of her work organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, D.C. Covering an array of pieces extending from the early phototexts in the “Family Pictures and Stories” series, 1978–1984, to the recent “Sea Islands,” the exhibition comprises a meditation on the violence that is exerted through point of view. The notion of perspective that is central to anthropology is joined here to its photographic parallel, in a rereading of the documentary tradition. Although Weems did not begin her formal studies of folklore until 1984, when she enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley, the echo of the folkloric notion of an alternative history is audible in the first-person narratives of “Family Pictures and Stories.” Reading through the exhibition’s catalogue essays, one finds it easy to imagine Weems as an art student in the late ’70s, engaged in a critical examination of her sanitized Western intellectual inheritance, noting its silence on questions of race and color in issues of authorship and reader address.

“Family Pictures” takes two practices as points to resist: first, the imaging of black people as “other” in the photodocumentary tradition (a tradition that is almost the exclusive property of white photographers); second, the official sociological studies commissioned by the U.S. government in the ’60s. Both are notable for their inscription of blackness as a sign of victimization and powerlessness. The informing influences of “Family Pictures,” in contrast, are the practices of the generations of Harlem photographers, and in particular of Roy DeCarava, whose disciplined yet sensitive rendering of his community is reflected in Weems’ careful domestic portraits of her family. Accompanying verbal narratives—audiotapes, played in the exhibition space, of Weems reading the words of her mother, grandmothers, and cousins, along with her own interpretative comments—make use of the associative ramblings and colloquialisms of direct speech and interpose a female viewpoint into the narration. A rich, subjective portrait of community life is opposed to the distortions of objective history, as rendered by the outside observer.

“Family Pictures” traces the migrations of the Polk and Weems families, who were sharecroppers on plantations in the South in the ’40s, north to Portland, Oregon, the artist’s first home. This trajectory recapitulates the history of the many black American families that dispersed across the United States following the breakdown of the cotton industry in the ’50s, “distancing themselves,” as Weems notes, “from their historical past.” The image of the sharecropper, shadowed by white culture, is of course a shadow for the figure of the slave, its close neighbor in time. For Weems, this slave past, with all its intimations of Africa, is central to black experience, and it forms a leitmotif running through her oeuvre. In the “Sea Islands” series, for example, the viewer may mentally elide the empty, echoing spaces of plantations and the crumbling native dwellings with three triptychs of 19th-century daguerreotype portraits of slaves, their haggard features riddled with age and pain. This mental putting-into-place, narratively speaking, rehearses the thematic of the ancestral accounts in “Family Pictures.”

More broadly, Weems’ work describes the notion of slavery’s formative role in the black experience by tracing the endurance, in language, of images and representations of racial domination. If the macro form of the inscription of power relations in language is the master discourse of theory and science, with its exclusions and reifications of “otherness,” the micro form is the more widespread and insidious profusion of racial stereotypes, innuendoes, and epithets. These dirty little missives from one culture to another recur throughout the story lines of “Family Pictures” and the kitchen-table groups of “Untitled,” 1990; in “Ain’t Jokin,” 1987–88, which catalogues racial stereotypes and slurs; and in “Colored People,” 1989–90, which enumerates the vast range of skin colors that are collapsed into the governing denomination “black.” The masked though palpable violence of this imagery reminds us of the art historian Norman Bryson’s admonition that in Western societies, control assumes the nonphysical form of signifiers.1 The explicit coercions of the slave trade are subsumed within the traffic in disembodied representations.

Weems has alluded in writing to the “little packages of consumer racism” that are the stock-in-trade of our collective psyche. Weems’ reference is obvious—ideology is constructed and reproduced through consumption—but it also encompasses the more subtle racism of black Americans who unconsciously internalize white-supremacist norms. This complicity of black people in their own victimization (a similar role to that of many women) is perpetuated by the uninterrupted sway of racist representations in the media. The colonization of black subjectivity by whiteness is configured in “Colored People,” which deals with the color hierarchies adopted by African-Americans; in the complex sexual dynamics of “Untitled”; and in some of the inscriptions celebrating African origins that accompany the “Sea Islands” series on a group of china plates (“Went looking for Africa . . . and found uncombed heads acrylic nails & Afrocentric attitudes Africans find laughable”). The tone of the latter works is cautionary—“Afrocentrism” is an inverted form of Eurocentric focus and points toward the need for non-Western, nonhegemonic models that reconfigure black identity as different from its stereotypical other. The multiple and discordant discursive forms that Weems privileges—folk tales, blues lyrics, superstitions, dialects, and colloquialisms—approximate collective, rather than colonial, speech. Identity, then, is constructed, shaped, “spoken.” Experience is not prediscursive.

It is interesting to note, in scanning the catalogue, that Weems has been influenced by Berkeley professor Alan Dundes in believing that photography can be construed as folklore. The notion of the photograph as a collective cultural form, akin to the tale and other narrative modes of “speech,” has enormous bearing on the documentary tradition. In addition, the anthropological reading of the visual image as a “bearer of lore” sheds light on certain affiliated objects—the ceramic plates and consumer items that are interspersed within Weems’ oeuvre. Commemorating historical figures as well as the survivals of Africanisms within American culture, they counter the grinning mammy dolls and sambos of black commercial history, entering directly into the marketing and exchange of images to “give voice” to African-American identity.

Weems’ plays with the impositions of position and point of view acquire historical perspective given recent changes in identity politics. As Dundes has pointed out, folklore, with its component of superstition and popular belief, was until recently discredited, regarded as “something for educated Negroes to demean.”’ Rebellion against white standards, along with the reappropriation of supposedly minor fields of endeavor, have indicated that the contours of the Western canon are more porous than they appeared. Such revision is evident in Weems’ own introduction of class and gender into the racial discourse of her narratives (many of which deal with her complex identity as an educated black woman from the working class), and in her critique of feminist theory’s avoidance of the issues of black representation and spectatorship. This disturbing color blindness—wasn’t it over a decade ago that we were reminded of the “blind spot” of gender?—is epitomized by the idealized white abstraction of woman that informs recent theory, as well as by the failure of feminist film criticism as a whole to acknowledge or “place” the black female viewer. For black women, the mastering role of the photographic apparatus has racial overtones that are unsettled by Weems’ skillful parries with her subjects’ positions. For example, in the “Untitled” series, where the photographer serves as model, the black female subject provides a figure for the identification of the spectator, who assumes the position established by the camera. The double victimization of black women by the gaze is at once invoked and deflected.

Among the desolate spaces figured in “Sea Islands” there is one image in which an immobile Weems poses dressed as a plantation worker, her eyes closed and face contorted with pain. The view is part of a four-panel work—two images, two texts—and the spectator’s eye moves ruggedly among the disjoined forms. One photograph depicts a pan of water placed on the floor beside a chair, while both texts relate native Gullah superstitions. “If a person comes to your home,” reads one, “and you sense bad karma, put out a pan of water and when the person leaves, take it out- side and dump it. If somebody tries to put a jinx on you, gather up all the signs, put them in newspaper or a bag, tie a string around it and throw it in the river.” The eye travels back to the peopled image, moving behind Weems’ figure toward the corner, where a painting is suspended from the wall. The painting is a typical portrait featuring a bewigged white man, painstakingly groomed and dressed in a starched white shirt and jacket. In the manner of so many founding fathers, he appears to survey his terrain, establishing patriarchal dominion over a space that fans out, imaginatively, beyond the rectangular confines of the canvas. The black woman stands with her back against him, turned toward the viewer. In the background, the sound of water is audible.

Kate Linker is a free-lance critic who lives in New York. She is the author of Love for Sale: The Words and Pictures of Barbara Kruger, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990, and of Vito Acconci, to be published by Rizzoli later this year.

“Carrie Mae Weems,” organized by Andrea Kirsh and Susan Fisher Sterling for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., remains at that museum until 21 March. It then travels to the Forum, Saint Louis, 9 April–15 May; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 9 June–4 August; the Center for the Fine Arts, Miami, 28 August–7 November; the California Afro-American Museum, Los Angeles, 8 December 1993–28 February 1994; the Portland Art Museum, 23 March–22 May; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 23 July–2 October; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 28 October 1994–8 January 1995; and the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, 3 February–2 April.


1. See Norman Bryson, Vision in Painting: The Logic of the Gaze, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983.

2. Alan Dundes, “Preface,” in Dundes, ed., Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore, Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi, 1973, p. xii.