From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried, Carrie Mae Weems, 1995-96
Every time I look at this work by Carrie Mae Weems I read the text aloud, always more than once. I believe it is meant to be spoken. These are words that with their accompanying images, give voice to the “types” who remained silent far too long, captured, in both image and in fact. For me, the effect of looking at the series while reading is nothing short of a Barthesian “punctum.” It is as much an homage to self-respect as it is an excoriation of history.
When I first encountered this work I heard the artist speaking about her process in using these appropriated images, one of which (the man with scars on his back) Harvard University controls the copyright to. She was threatened with a lawsuit over her appropriation of the image with the text “black and tanned your whipped wind of change howled low blowing itself-ha-smack into the middle of Ellington’s orchestra Billie heard it too and cried strange fruit tears.” Weems opened a dialogue about the ethics of the images of slaves taken without consent and whose descendants still remained uncompensated, were they ever to be found. Harvard did not back down initially with these arguments, so Weems agreed to be sued. She told them plainly that it might be a discussion better suited for a public forum even if it were a court of law. Harvard relented and Weems proceeded with this thirty image project.
Re-photographing all the nineteenth and twentieth century photographs and processing them as red and black chromogenic color prints, she then matted them with black circular cut-outs and sand-blasted text on the glass. Facing in as book-ends and providing the meta-context of the “contained” images are two indigo-hued prints of an African woman in native dress. Her demeanor is nothing less than regal, though one still wonders of the influence and effect the presence of the curiosity-seeking cameraman cum anthropologist might have had on her. The two photographs facing the “evidence” Weems has curated, create a framework and provide a voice of the ancestors, those who were never enslaved, never uprooted, empowered at the very least by remaining unconquered, but who now empathize from a distance with a maternal dignity. She says, “from here I saw what happened.” She pauses, reflects for an interval that could be as long as several generations, and then concludes, “…and I cried.”
Behind the glass, whose surfaced has been “depleted” to reveal the text, surrounded by funereal victorian-esque circular black mats and frames, the photographs float in a red limbo; suspended behind layers of racism, xenophobia and prejudice. The images seem submerged in blood-stained water. It is a suffocating effect. As a counterpoint to the density of images, the text floats on the outermost surface. With it Weems manages to remind us of the tenacity of the human spirit but as told by a voice, wise but unable to avoid the “ha” that escapes it, almost unwillingly, upon hearing the ironies of its own story. One photograph, however, remains silent, a young black girl in a white dress holding flowers. She gives us pause, both in the narrative and visually. Her silence is the loudest voice of all. It is a bracing tonic served to the viewer, hard to swallow but cathartic. It is hope, humble and inexorable.
(I wish I had made that)