Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems in an American artist who has investigated the topics of family relationship, cultural identity, sexism, class, political systems and the consequences of power. She aims to enter the picture, both literally and metaphorically, in an on-going dialogue of contemporary discourse. Through these thirty years, she has developed a complex body of art employing photographs, text, fabric, audio, digital images, as well as installation and video.
In her Tate Modern, London exhibition of From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried 1995-6, I witnessed this personal history that she embodies into her work. The images were chosen from archives that included daguerrotypes of slaves taken in the 1850s to the 1950s. The exhibition sequence ends with the same photograph taken from these archives; an image of the wife of a Mangbetu chief in the Belgian Congo.
The images themselves are enlarged and overlaid with a red tint, mounting them in black frames behind glass. The text that is etched onto each pane of glass forms a powerful, poetic commentary that reaches both ends of the display. Both image and text show African Americans being forced into servile roles and presented as evidence to prove dubious scientific theories, and stereotypical characters in novels.
Weems does not shy away from the violence of where these people came from; one image shows a whipped mans back. Displaying this image alongside other, more gentle ones, confronts the complex and brutal history of these people, and of those that she came from. She encourages the viewer to recognise each face as individual when addressing them as ‘you’.
I was intrigued by the red overlay on the images, as it makes the violence behind each one more pronounced. This, along with the text addressing the viewer, draws you into the piece, and almost leaves you wanting to feel guilty for perhaps being a cause, or a part of the reason why these people were made to do, what they were made to do. The power behind each image alone was staggering, but displayed together was like a smack round the face – from here, you saw what happened, and you couldn’t do anything to change what the people in the images had for a life.

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