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Art-­Based Image-­and-­Text Forms This page intentionally left blank 171 Carrie Mae Weems’s Photo-­ (Auto)biographies ​ “Work That Is Essential to Our Cultural Dialogue” Carrie Mae Weems’s photo-­ (auto)biographies develop from photo-­ text sequences hung on gallery walls to elaborate architectural installation pieces that require viewers to enter and navigate the narrative visual-­ verbal space with its many surfaces and interfaces. Photographer Carrie Mae Weems examines in image and text the nature of memory and history, insisting on an intense critique of the wrongs of the past as part of a process of self-­ formulation. Like the other artists and writers explored in this volume, Weems examines the relation between individual life stories and collective historical narratives. As a storyteller-artist, she envisions the artist as the “narrator of history” (Weems, “Interview” 79). In the process of showing and telling through photographs and texts, she represents the historical legacy of racial violence to provoke readers-­ viewers to become aware of injustice and the false narratives that enable it. Focusing on African American and Native American racial and cultural histories, Weems is deeply self-­ referential and unapologetically political. In dialogue with social documents and visual archives, she creates visual-­ verbal sites of personal engagement and political intervention. In the process, Weems sets up the conditions for an intersubjective or affiliative mode of looking—a type of looking that values interrelatedness. Finally, in constituting her personal and collective histories, Weems engages in a process of refiguration; in her photo-­ (auto)biographies, she couples photographic images and text—in the form of commentary or story or dialogue—and creates a sequence that hangs on a gallery wall. In her later work, she enlarges and projects digital photographs onto fabric surfaces that are designed as interactive architectural sites. Rather than walking by the exhibit, the reader is forced to enter into it. Best known as a photographer-activist, Carrie Mae Weems was trained as both an artist and a folklorist. A visual storyteller for more than thirty years, Weems uses photographs to critique class and race in U.S. society, to comment on the human condition, and to document her experiences as a woman of color. In the process, she both continues and increasingly challenges the tradition of documentary photography. Like Art-Based Image-and-Text Forms 172 participant-­ observer anthropologists, Weems actively engages with the people and communities she records and imagines. Rejecting the supposed objectivity of photographers and “traditional discourses of documentary photography” that maintain a distance from their subjects, she asks viewers to question claims about “objectivity” and “outsiderness” (Sterling 20). In almost all of her work Weems interweaves or juxtaposes image and text “in order to expand upon layers and levels of meaning” (Piché 14). In relation to the photographs, “the text takes on a double-­ voiced character, combining the direct speech of an active participant and the third-­ person reportage of an omniscient observer” (Piché and Golden 15), self-­ reflexively narrating, describing, and interrelating subject positions and voices. Weems is known, in particular, for provocative works that “examine and subvert the relationship between conventional photographic representation and racist and sexist ideologies” (Sterling 20). Weems rises to the challenge articulated by bell hooks in 1992: “Challenged to rethink, insurgent black intellectuals and/or artists are looking at new ways to write and talk about race and representation, working to transform the image” (2). Like other political photographers and artists, Weems uses art in the service of social critique as well as individual and collective identity formation.1 For African Americans, “from the twentieth century onward, photography as a political tool and movement strategy is unavoidable” because “the political stakes of cultural representation and the cultural terrain of political representation are . . . never very far apart” (Raiford 27). Founded in New York in 1963 by a group of African American photographers who sought to correct the dearth of black photographers in the art world, the Kamoinge Workshop has influenced Weems’s work.2 Kamoinge translates as “a group of people acting together.” Kamoinge photographers work to represent everyday lives of black people from their own perspectives, part of the ongoing project of African American self-­ reclamation, historical correction, and sovereignty. According to Leigh Raiford, “For African Americans, photography necessitated an opportunity and a challenge to reclaim, repair, remake, reimagine, and redeem” (8). Like Faith Ringgold’s fabric paintings (chapter 7), Weems’s photographs are in constant, complex dialogue with the long history of racist representations of black...


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