Politics, passion through Weems' lens Race, gender relations are focus of D.C. show


February 21, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Walk into the the Carrie Mae Weems show at Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the first thing you meet is a quote from the artist: "Let me simply say that my primary concern in art, as in politics, is with the status and place of Afro-Americans in our country."

The show that follows leaves no doubt about that, but we should take the word "primary" seriously, for Weems' work is not solely about African-Americans and race relations. It's also about women and gender relations, and the necessity of honesty. The several series of Weems' photography since 1978 are not uniformly successful, but they all reveal her commitment to her art as well as her passion about the subjects she addresses.

In "Family Pictures and Stories" (1978-1984), her first major series, Weems turned her camera on her own family and recorded it with affection and humor but also a startling openness.

Weems' art involves the interweaving of photographs and texts, and here she added her own recorded voice to flesh out a picture that puts us in remarkably close contact with these people.

We come to know a great deal about their past and present, and above all about their devotion to one another despite their problems. We know of Weems' mother's anger at her (Carrie Mae's) teen-age pregnancy, and that her father and her brother once had a drunken argument that ended in gunfire. We don't know that much about some of the families we've known all our lives, and the series has been brilliantly installed in a small space with photos stacked above one another to reinforce the intimacy between viewer and subject.

With "Ain't Jokin' " and "American Icons," Weems leaves the personal to record the condescension and viciousness of prejudice. The "icons" are everyday objects that serve us -- salt and pepper shakers, an ashtray, a letter holder -- in the form of blacks. "Ain't Jokin' " throws in the viewer's face both jokes and stereotypes, most of which are so vile they can't be repeated

here. The black woman holding a piece of fried

chicken and the black man holding a piece of watermelon are by far the gentlest of them.

With "Untitled (Kitchen Table Series)," Weems explores gender relationships in a series of photographs and texts that are almost cinematic in their drama.

The story is simple enough: A woman meets a man, falls in love with him, finally breaks up with him and carries on afterward. It's told primarily from the point of view of the woman, but Weems doesn't fail to gives the woman her share of the burden of blame for her infidelity, her nagging and (as the man sees it) "her insistent demand that everything -- the flowers on the table -- be viewed politically." The series has obvious relevance for anyone who has had a close personal relationship, especially in its recognition that the parties to such a relationship will inevitably see the same aspects of it differently.

The flaw here is that the texts and photographs are not as well integrated as they might be. Long after the man has stopped appearing in the photographs, he inhabits the texts as if the relationship were not only a memory but still going on.

"Colored People" (1989-1990) explores the phenomenon of color through irony. The series title appropriates a term once used to describe blacks, and the individual photographs' titles acknowledge the differences and by implication the hierarchies of skin color among blacks: "Golden Yella Girl," "Chocolate Brown Man," "Burnt Orange Girl."

But Weems turns the tables two ways. Her hand-tinted photographs include colors that are not directly related to skin color -- "Magenta Colored Girl," "Violet Colored Girl" -- to point up the irrelevance of classifying people according to skin tone. And both these beautifully finished photographs and the beautiful young people in them give the lie to any pejorative or patronizing connotation of the word "colored."

The only series that doesn't work here is "And 22 Million Very Tired and Very Angry People" (1991). The large-format color prints combined with banners bearing quotes from such historical figures as Marx and Malcolm X don't pack the punch that they should, primarily because the photographs tend to be both too obvious -- a rolling pin over the legend "By Any Means Necessary" -- and visually too soft.

Weems doesn't appear to be as comfortable with color as with black and white photography, and her subject, which encompasses the entire African-American experience, is too broad and generalized.

But with the final series in the show, "Untitled (Sea Island Series)" (1991-1992), the artist does some of her best work. In it she searches out what curator Susan Fisher Sterling calls "the unique folk culture and Gullah dialect of the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina [where] . . . many of the customs, beliefs and language patterns of the region are direct survivals of African patterns once thought lost."

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