In an iconic early series, the artist deconstructs the ethnographic gaze that has long trailed Black subjects.
By Sasha Bonét
I sliced a watermelon open across its belly last summer and gasped, as the red flesh and black seeds resembled bodies inside the barracoon. When I go to the nation’s edge and put my feet into the shore of the Atlantic, I think of women throwing their babies overboard to be set free by the water, and the crashing waves turn to screams. When I ask my grandmother about her time on the cotton plantations of Louisiana, she rolls her eyes: “Here she go remembering again.”
A “land condemned to forgetfulness” is what the writer Eduardo Galeano once called America. Forget where you come from, forget your languages, forget your rituals, religions, homeland. Forget centuries of enslaved labor. But it’s all I can think about. To be Black in America often means that your history has been deliberately withheld, and the fragments that remain have been reframed to veil the unconscionable terrors that built the foundation of this nation. Conceptual artist Carrie Mae Weems has taken these fragments to construct a narrative that reckons with this somber history and draws a straight line to contemporary racialized norms in her photographic series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995–96), currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Thirty-three images, a divine number—including four enlarged daguerreotypes of enslaved men and women captured in 1850 by Joseph T. Zealy, produced in the name of eugenics by Harvard University scientist Louis Agassiz, and archived at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography. Weems’s series was originally commissioned in 1994 by the J. Paul Getty Museum for an exhibition called Hidden Witness. The Zealy daguerreotypes and other portraits of unnamed souls from the 1850s are situated alongside more contemporary images, like Garry Winogrand’s Central Park Zoo (1967), depicting a white woman and a Black man holding monkeys (the presumed outcome of miscegenation’s one-drop rule) and, furthermore, just how insignificant progress has been. But what of the Black woman whose hair is tied down, but her legs lie wide open on the bed, her hand and the lens positioned in between? In the way she holds her mouth, slightly turned up but not quite a smile, you can see that the subject has subverted her oppression to power as Black Venus, both despised and hypersexualized: You Became Playmate to the Patriarch. Weems’s prose bites and stings. I look away quickly, in fear of further demeaning Black Venus, in fear of seeing myself in her.
Weems, the sixty-seven-year-old Portland, Oregon–born artist-curator, has long been a genius—even before she was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2013, and before she became the first Black woman artist to have a retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2014. She has been most notably characterized by the care and complexity that she extends to her subjects, and also to her peers and colleagues, such as the photographer, curator, and historian Deborah Willis, whom Weems invited to Los Angeles for her first professional exhibition. HBO’s recent documentary film Black Art: In the Absence of Light (2021), directed by Sam Pollard, highlights the dynamic community formed with the Studio Museum in Harlem as its nucleus and home base, and the insistence on Black artists to reshape the ways that the world sees. To reclaim and expand the limiting views projected onto the Black body. Weems is featured saying what many have recognized: “Most of the primary cultural institutions have been behind.”
In From Here I Saw What Happened, the images Weems draws from are cropped, tinted red, like the bloodshed that is not immediately present, placed in circular mattes that emulate the lens of the camera, and covered by glass sandblasted with Weems’s famously poetic prose; that circular lens, like a spotlight or crosshair, focuses on the subjects, but exposes the intent of the shooter. As well as the oppositional gaze of the subjects. Even in physical captivity, their eyes express dignity and dissent. The subjects captured by Zealy are mostly positioned naked and profiled, much like mug shots or anthropological specimens, revealing a race so eager to demean another in support of theories of superiority that it renders those responsible pathetic, and yet more, deeply ill.
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