New Orleans

Carrie Mae Weems

Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University

When Newcomb College at Tulane University commissioned Carrie Mae Weems to create new work commemorating the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, she made several sets of photographs, a video projection, and sets of video stills in which she juxtaposed sites of slavery and antebellum pomp with the industrial locales of the “New South.” In the photos, Weems herself appears in period costume; for the videos, she shot footage of a Mardi Gras ball off the TV and integrated it into her own imagery of contemporary and Civil War–era maids, mistresses, and masters in shadowy silhouette. Both photos and video evince a fascination with architecture and the way it anchors history. Though the work here is black and white, the content spans the moral spectrum.

Photographed busts of ambitious Napoléon and canny Thomas Jefferson hung inside oval-shape period frames at the entrance to the exhibition. In another photograph, Weems, dressed in a slave’s calico dress with her back to the viewer, regards a curved plantation staircase; elsewhere, she contemplates a spiraling staircase that hugs the side of a petrochemical tank—one of a species that has displaced many stately Taras along the river road and that serves as a source of employment for many Louisiana African Americans. Weems’s cool composure in these contexts suspends her in time. Where or in what epoch does she belong: to the ancient mutes of these lawns and rooms, or with the workers in the chemical plants of the contemporary South? She lets us follow as she tracks history in period attire, treading along the railroad (the freedom road?) or stepping resolutely toward a graveyard.

For all the sobriety of these photos and videos, there’s also an Emma Goldman–ish “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.” In one photograph, a celebratory Weems twirls through a white-as-alabaster interior that recalls a room in Walker Evans’s 1935 photos of the Belle Grove plantation. More than simply making loud the silent steps of slave women, Weems’s action evokes all the souls of Black Folk who sang and danced their blues.

In the video, past and present forcibly collide as Weems assembles into one frame and time a white woman, a black woman, and a white man—the South’s once segregated yet always interwoven players, here engaging in masquerades and parlor games. Footage of the Rex Ball introduces a flavor of social history: After a soft voice-over that speaks of the “magnificently mounted masquerades of metaphor,” an elegant blond walks the cotillion floor on her escort’s arm. The polished pageantry of dancing in turn links the video and the video stills, which are arrayed in storyboard formation flanking the projection: A belle waves her mask; a riding crop is frozen between function and fetish.

Is this 2003, 1953, or 1853? The anonymous blond is a historical analogue to the narrative Weems rewrites. A servant holding a candelabra marches across an icy interior past an empty table and two vacant Louis XIV–style armchairs. This moment spells illumination: For an instant she dwarfs the pair of ladies whom she’s about to serve. Before the duo sit, they circle one another—partners in a quadrille or in a duel? Later in the video a woman in sexy bodywear goes from slapping her palm with a riding crop to whacking the hand of a dandy in lace cuffs to finally riding him across the frame while spanking his behind. The video’s background seems to be made up of diamonds of dappled light. At first glance it’s a garden trellis; on second, it’s a chain-link fence. Leisure accessory? Symbol of subjugation? The twin possibilities run through all of Weems’s work.

Ellen Berkovitch