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Weems, Carrie Mae
U.S. (1953 - )
Untitled (from the Sea Islands series)
Chromogenic color (Ektacolor) print
20 in. (50.8 cm) [diameter] exposed image size;21 [diameter] x 1 1/2 in. (53.3 x 3.8 cm) frame size;21 x 96 in. (53.34 x 243.84 cm) installed size
Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company
Keywords: Series: Sea Islands; Portrait (female); Triptych; Woman artist; African American artist; Northwest artist: Oregon, Portland
Drana, for what did she call herself?
Drana, Country Born, Daughter of Jack, Guinea. If we take the label given to her by the photographer commissioned by a paleontologist and a creationist we will only know what the institution of slavery would have us know. Drana, the name stripped of the culture of her father who we know is from Guinea, and who has been named Jack. Country born, as in on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, between the land of her father’s birth and the land in which she was born enslaved. Daughter of Jack, Guinea, but who is her mother? The absence of her mother is another marker of the institution: the inability for enslaved women to mother the children to which they gave birth. Enslaved women who gave birth would be expected to wet nurse their white charges and otherwise continue to be as productive as they were prior to their enslavement.
Carrie Mae Weems has us look at her again:
The One with eyes that look back at your looking, not asking to be recognized as human but owning the fact of her humanity. She, a woman of African descent who must look back at a gaze that wishes to dehumanize. She, who in each decade to come would have another name, another photograph, another stereotype, another meme. The One, whose image proliferates without her consent and its story, without her signature. The One, whose gaze refracts that of your desires, even your desire for distance from her condition. Drana, for what did she call herself?
-- Label copy by Bettina A. Judd, Assistant Professor, Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, University of Washington
Reframing A Wounded History
Untitled: this non-title already speaks volumes. The woman whose gaze confronts us remains unnamed; this is not a conventional portrait. But it does have a distinctive structure. It is a triptych—a three-panel composition common in religious paintings from the European Renaissance (c. 1400–1600), a period long associated with ideas of artistic “rebirth.” Weems thus reframes tiny, objectifying daguerreotypes of an enslaved African American woman into a monumental, implicitly sacred work of art. The way the background lightens around the woman even begins to resemble a halo or aura.
Look further at the work’s highly deliberated structure. Why are the outer wings roundels? They recall Renaissance tondos, round devotional paintings sometimes associated with childbirth. The woman’s connection with the sacred is thus rendered more intimate and feminine. But it thereby becomes more complicated, for even a privileged woman in the pre-modern world found her identity powerfully delimited by her gender and role in childbearing. Meanwhile, for the enslaved woman, the pseudo-science that demanded her photographic objectification compelled her to strip, laying bare her enforced role as a bearer of children destined for bondage. But if she has been stripped naked, Weems also reframes her as the triptych’s central icon, implicitly elevating her through associations with religion and art.
Yet if art and religion may inflect dehumanization toward devotion, they do not finally erase the scars that perpetually lay bare our nation’s original sin. And the triptych’s shiny surface captures our reflections. The silvered ground of daguerreotypes reflected beholders as well, but as miniatures. Now our images become life-size—as do the woman’s. Weems reframes our encounter with her so that we are forced to meet one another through art’s reflection of our wounded humanity and history.
-- Label copy by Stuart Lingo, Associate Professor and Chair, Division of Art History, University of Washington
Text panel for Viewpoints: Carrie Mae Weems, February 18 to June 18, 2017.
Copyright credit: Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY
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