Five years ago, Carrie Mae Weems created an abbreviated world history of struggle in an installation called “Ritual and Revolution.” Printed on muslin banners were photos of serene landscapes and human chaos, dead palaces, Holocaust victims, a riot. On audiotape, Weems recited a poem that made her the omniscient narrator of all disquiet: “I was with you/when you stormed the Bastille &/The Winter Palace./I was with you/in the hideous mise en scène of the Middle Passage. . . . ” Weems identifies with these mostly anonymous people who changed the world. While “Ritual and Revolution” may be more bluntly political than much of her work, she calls it a thesis: “I’m using that ‘I’ voice, not in the guise of Weems, but as something deeper. I’m trying to understand something about the human spirit, how it operates, where it goes awry, how to address it, how to look at it, how to unravel it.” That’s the homework.
Her new work at P.P.O.W’s Chelsea gallery takes the assignment to a more subliminal level. There’s a May Day celebration in the first room—not a Red Square parade but girls circling a maypole—and photos from Cuba in the second. “Revolution” is too bloody a word for these gentle pictures. They remind us that struggle is everyday business, and that revolution is merely about possibility. No manifesto is adequate.
Weems currently has shows at two other Manhattan galleries. It doesn’t add up to a retrospective, but illustrates something of her range. P.P.O.W’s Soho space has work that hasn’t been seen in New York before, like images from “The Hampton Project.” Parts of well-known early pieces like the “Kitchen Table” series are at P.C.O.G. in Harlem.
Often Weems photographs scenarios in which she appears as a character, creating, for example, the evolution/devolution of a romance in tableaux set around a kitchen table in the series of that name. Or she critiques archival photos, responding, for example, to pictures taken in 1899 at the Hampton Institute, which specialized in assimilating African American and Native American students into white culture.
Certainly photos construct identity and hint at narrative, but Weems is trying to get at things photography can’t adequately capture. She talks about imbuing her pictures with a spiritual resonance, or, as she puts it, with “more than simply that which is pictured.” It’s all about the photo as surface, just a fiction: not just scenarios where everything is set up and posed in the service of a truth that lies outside the frame, but also documentation that tells a partial truth or no truth at all.
“I’ve had a long relationship with the idea of Cuba,” says Weems. “Am I a defender of the revolution? I don’t know. But I am a defender of the people who suffered vastly under Batista.” The artist appears in the Cuba photos, as she’s appeared in earlier series, not as herself but as a persona. She could easily be mistaken for one of the locals—hugging a man as he sits at his breakfast, walking a balustrade at an old coffee plantation, turning away from a board game on a table. Invited to contribute to a book called Cuba on the Verge, Weems says, “I couldn’t imagine running through Cuba for a couple of weeks pointing my camera aimlessly at people I didn’t know.” So the breakfast picture, for example, was taken at a home where she was staying. “I woke up one morning and this amazing song was pouring into my room, and I knew that the woman of the house was making breakfast, so I threw on my clothes and rushed out and said, ‘I have to borrow your husband for 10 minutes.’ ”
Weems likes to insinuate herself into a milieu, into a culture, trying, she says, “to pull out its spiritual essence, its aura of history and historical musing.” She calls what she does “quasi-documentary,” but wants to shoot as an insider. She also included herself in the “Sea Islands” series made in the Gullah communities off the coast of Georgia, home to a very unique culture in which slaves and their descendants managed to preserve some of their Africanisms. But Weems is always looking for the universal in the particular.
She is an African American artist who chooses to work mostly with African American subjects, and if that work isn’t seen as relevant to all human beings, it’s been racialized. “A part of my project is absolutely inserting the black presence in the world, asserting it as the norm. Not as the abnormal. Not as simply racial politics. But rather, embracing the breadth of this humanity that comes through this brown skin.
“Your self—that’s the beginning point: What does any of this mean to me? If it means something deeply to you, it can be transferred to somebody else, because you are not that different.” She adds that when she took the “Sea Islands” series to South Africa, the people installing the show with her thought it was work about South Africa.
For “May Days Long Forgotten” (the last line of her “Ritual and Revolution” poem) at P.P.O.W Chelsea, Weems photographed five little girls. “I’ve been looking for a young girl who reminded me of myself,” she says. A couple of summers ago, not far from her home in Syracuse, Weems saw such a child walking down the street with her mother. Since then, she’s been photographing her along with her sisters and cousins. Most of these portraits are framed in ovals or circles like the formal portraits of another century.
One standout is After Manet, which functions as both homage and critique to Edouard Manet’s notorious painting, Olympia. Weems wanted to examine the odalisque. In the Manet, of course, it’s a nude white woman, who looks unabashedly at the artist/spectator. Behind her, a black maid offers a bouquet of flowers. Weems’s version features an unabashed black girl in a flowered dress. Behind her are three other black girls. “I’m very aware of linking my figures to a historical narrative or tradition,” says Weems, “and re-examining that tradition by putting in someone who was never there.”
On a wall nearby, Weems includes a picture of Versailles with Marie Antoinette’s famous rejoinder etched into the glass. “This idea that the revolution is exported from France in order to bring about greater democracy and moves through Haiti and comes back to Cuba and runs the French out of Haiti,” says Weems. “It’s a crazy circle of movement. These are really poor young girls, and still, echoing through the corridors of history, we have this reverberation of ‘let them eat cake.’ We’re still dealing with the same sort of entity, the same sort of evil.”
The girls also circle a maypole in a DVD loop projected on one wall. It’s part of a film Weems is now editing called Coming Up for Air, a series of vignettes that examine “the taboos of love, what builds love, what destroys love.” One is about Nelson and Winnie Mandela, “a tragedy that could be one of the great operas of all time,” says Weems. “It’s just so fraught with incredible passion and history.”
“I remember looking at the film, thinking, ‘I am so glad to be able to see these people.’ I was really happy to be part of a project that provided other levels for viewing blackness. I’m a middle-aged woman, so Puff Daddy is not my thing,” she laughs, adding that so much of what’s available now comes from that “hip-hop/gangster/tits-and-ass place. It’s incredibly stereotypic yet and still. So for me to be able to engage in that dialogue as well—how do I represent differently and empower differently the image of a people who’ve been historically scorned? Frankly, I think it’s one of my greatest successes. I think that I do that very, very well, and that it’s through embracing these qualities of our humanity.”
“May Days Long Forgotten” and “Dreaming in Cuba,” through March 15, at P.P.O.W, 555 West 25th Street, 212-647-1044. Works from 1997 to 2002, also through March 15, at P.P.O.W, 476 Broome Street, 212-941-8642. “A Certain Kind of Love,” through March 16, at P.C.O.G., 1902 Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, 212-932-9669.