Art historian Sharon F. Patton has observed that artists in the second half of the twentieth century have “revived the photographic image [with its] wealth of symbols about culture and society; and a strong narrative component.” Among those artists, Carrie Mae Weems and Betye Saar have used photography in different ways to express their perspectives around issues of race, class, gender, and identity in the U.S.
Weems, a native of Portland, Oregon, is primarily known as a photographer whose documentary photographs have explored the effects of racism as well as the intricacies that, in her view, define gender relations and sexuality. Born in Los Angeles, Saar is best known for her sculptures, collages and assemblages made from recycled materials and found objects that include vintage photographs of families, relatives or strangers. Her art has attempted to dismantle stereotypical views of African Americans while destabilizing entrenched racial ideologies. Both artists express similar thematic concerns through calculated visual storytelling that engages the viewer in dialogues that call for a reexamination of their assumptions and belief systems.
The complex and painful history of race in the United States has also impacted the lives of those who arrive from other countries in search of economic opportunities or political asylum. Artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons has explored her self-imposed exile from Cuba and her experiences as an Afro-Cuban woman living in the U.S. through her mixed-media installations and large-scale photography. With a similar aesthetic sensibility and spiritual power found in the work of Weems and Saar, Campos-Pons constructs visual narratives inspired by her own family history in Africa and Cuba which she often ties to the personal and collective experience of the African diaspora in the U.S. In this sense, her work explores issues of ethnic, national and sexual identity as well as the symbolic consequences of movement, displacement and death.
Technique and content
Photography is at the center of these artists’ form of storytelling. The portraits of black subjects standing on their own or juxtaposed with other objects create powerful narratives about social injustice and identity. Those narratives also attempt to recuperate a historical memory while reclaiming the human dignity of black subjects.
Saar uses vintage photographs that she finds in family archives and flea markets and combines them with other found objects. This combination of images, text, fabric, hair, artifact and other material creates a broad context for Saar’s thoughts and feelings around issues of race, memory, history and family. The portraits of black female or male subjects that Saar uses in her work are often centrally positioned, framed, and surrounded by a variety of objects that highlight their connection to the past. For example, Redbone & Black: Crossings (2001) is a mixed media collage on bark that juxtaposes two faded photographic images: one of two Native American women who pose with two babies, one Indian and one visibly of African descent and the other of two well-dressed African American and Native American men posing for the camera. Below the photographs are two images of a canoe and a slave ship. The former represents the form of transportation used by Native Americans to navigate the rivers and the latter the cargo ships in which African slaves were transported to the Americas. In this piece, Saar asks us to reflect on the complex historical relation between Native Americans and people of African descent in the U.S. The silence around this subject exposes an injustice that Saar wants to confront with her art. Injustice is confronted through Saar’s work in different narrative forms from denouncing black women’s labor in the fields to commenting on the pervasive racial ideologies that deny humanity on the basis of skin color. Colored (2001) addresses the latter and will be discussed in detail in the next section.
As a visual artist, Weems says she longs “to see images of black people that are more than simply prepackaged stereotypes.” Inspired by this vision, Weems has taken and appropriated photographs that convey powerful ideas about slavery, black female agency, sexuality, representation and others. For example, in her controversial phototext installation From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995-1996), Weems rephotographed graphic images of African Americans, some of them early daguerreotypes that belonged to Harvard University. She created a chronology of images of “African Americans as they were and as they were imagined by others” which were accompanied by text in the first person that narrated stories related to each photograph and its social context. This work of conceptually based photography makes a valuable critique of the entire history of black visual representation. The act of appropriation serves to debunk Eurocentric versions of history.
That concern about how the black body has been used historically and photographically is one that has deeply defined Weems’s bodies of work. In After Manet from the May Days Long Forgotten 2003 series, Weems explores such a concern this time by critiquing and responding to the work of French painter Édouard Manet. Her print of four black little girls framed in a circle combines elements of traditional and contemporary photography that play with both photographic standards and representation over time. According to Weems, this series was born out of the “desire to think about how young girls are sexualized both politically and culturally.”
The Cuban-born artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons uses photography in her mixed-media installations. Her photographic transfers over ironing boards (Spoken Softly with Mama, 1998) and large-format Polaroid photographs (De Las Dos Aguas, 2007), serve to recuperate the memory of women of African descent whose lives were impacted and defined by the __ of domestic work and the uncertainties generated by dislocation. The power of her photographic images—both vintage and contemporary—relies on their ability to capture symbolic fragments of experience whose effect is magnified when juxtaposed to other related objects. They, too, evoke a variety of sentiments that speak to the personal and collective resilience of people of African descent. The artist’s appreciation of the historical memory of her ancestors highlights the rites and the stories that have survived the vicissitudes of time, of movement across bodies of waters.
Carrie Mae Weems (U.S., 1953)
After Manet, 2002
The title of this piece is a play on words implying that it is both “after” Manet in time and influenced by him—both an homage and a critique. The four young black girls in this photograph are shown lounging on the lawn and their poses suggest an empowered strength and youthful confidence. Three of the four girls are wearing flower hair accessories and are unabashedly returning the photographer and viewer’s gaze. The central figure, in particular, is positioned in a way that denotes self-assurance and defiance, recalling Manet’s notorious reclining nude “Olympia.” As Kirsten Olds describes,
In the French artist’s painting of the same name, Olympia offers her body to prospective admirers yet unabashedly returns their lascivious gazes, challenging a long-held tradition of voyeurism in paintings of female nudes. This act of looking back empowers the odalisque and inverts conventional nineteenth-century gender relations; instead of merely occupying the position of an object to be consumed, she assumes a role of agency. Nonetheless, despite Olympia’s (and Manet’s) affront to standard social relations, the racial hierarchy presented confirms the status quo: behind Olympia, a dark-skinned servant proffers a bouquet of fresh flowers.
As a response, Weems creates a photographic narrative that completely subverts the racial and class elements in Manet’s painting. She challenges the nineteenth-century tradition of depicting black subjects in supporting roles that imply their racial inferiority and low class background. Her re-examination results in a powerful portrait that seduces the viewer with its beauty while asking to recognize and engage with the social injustice it seeks to confront. In this way, Weems not only explores and challenges racism in art practice, but she also contributes to a rewriting of history in which black subjects embody their own uniqueness and claim a central role.
Betye Saar (U.S., 1926)
Mixed media assemblage with hand mirror
In this piece, Saar has attempted to make a visual comment on the “Skin Game,” a vicious practice that exists within the African American community and in the U.S. that distinguishes a person’s privilege based on their skin tones. According to Saar, her use of photographs in her collages help her address “the difficult and conflicted relationships that African Americans have with the attitudes, language and character of calling each other names based on skin color.”
She constructed the piece from a found, handmade wooden frame into which she inserted four found photographs of African American women of varying ages and with visibly different skin tones from light to dark. The word “colored” appears above the photographs while below them is an old strip of hosiery thread samples that stand as a color code indicating, as described by Leslie King-Hammond, “the color caste system which still exists within the social circles of Black society, and which operates to a larger, harsher degree in mainstream society affording special privileges and access to lighter African Americans.” The photographs are arranged in a way that mirrors the range presented by the color spectrum of the thread sample. In the middle of the photographs is an old proverb that reads: “Light is alright/Yellow is mellow/Brown, stick around/Black, get back (but black don’t crack).” Adjacent to the assemblage, the artist has installed a hanging mirror, inviting viewers to reflect on their own skin color.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons (Cuba, 1959)
De Las Dos Aguas, 2007
12 Polaroid Polacolor Pro prints
This piece is an assemblage of twelve large-format Polaroid photographs in which the artist appears standing in the left and right corners wearing blue and white dresses. Her eyes are closed and her hair is wrapped around her head. She is holding a brown bag with blue ribbons and an inscription that reads, “this is not art.” She stands in front of a bright blue backdrop reminiscent of the Caribbean ocean and holds a carved wooden boat with four figures that symbolize Yoruba deities. The boat and its passengers may also represent the journeys of people, including her own and those of her family, who have migrated from one country to another and experienced a profound sense of loss and dislocation in the process. Such feelings seem to be represented by the small brown bags tied to locks of hair, which are, in turn, wrapped around the boat and connected to her head. The visual image of the hanging brown bags suggests different things. They may represent the passengers’ baggage of dreams in a new land or their belongings buried in the deep ocean waters as testament to what they lost or left behind.
Recently, art historian Sharon F. Patton observed that feminist theories about power and sexuality have provided tools for the study of women in art. Feminist theory has helped understand how “the placement of women as the object of the male gaze is construed as sexual commodification, possession and control, and, if that female is black, about colonialism.” In this sense, Women’s Studies courses could benefit from using the work of these three artists as a way of raising and discussing complex questions around issues of gender and its intersections with other categories such as race and class. In addition, adding these artists’ work to a lesson plan also offers an opportunity to discuss the political/cultural role of women of color as artists and as subjects.
Some ideas for discussion questions:
- In what ways do these artists conceive and represent the black female body in their work?
- The black female subjects in these works literally embody injustice, defiance and dislocation. Explain how the black female figure plays this role.
- Describe how the artists’ different artistic approaches and material/media address racial ideologies and inequality? In what ways are those approaches successful in tackling the issue and connecting it to other sources of injustice?
History of Art
Students in Art History classes that focus on the historical development of a particular medium such as photography or the cultural relevance of mixed-media installations can benefit from studying these artists together or individually. Studying how these artists have worked with or against the conventions of their preferred medium offers a space to raise questions about the art of people of African descent and how their conceptual and experience-based ideas shape their work.
Courses addressing conceptual art and appropriation could address Carrie Mae Weems’s After Manet and Mel Ramos’s Manet’s Olympia, both in the UMMA collections, together with Manet’s Olympia.
- Describe how Weems and Ramos’s focus on the black female subject is different or similar. Do these artist share a similar understanding of race and visual representation?
- Weems has replaced two white Olympias for a black figure. What does this substitution mean to you?
American Studies and History
Courses in American Studies and History that focus on understanding race in the U.S. or in Latin America and the Caribbean can include the works of these artists to show how non-academics express their perspectives and concerns about the social injustices that result from structural racial inequality. This exercise may not only help students understand that there are different dimensions from which people make arguments and participate in national dialogues about historical pressing issues, but also think about how artists, in this case, produce their own historical narratives.
- How do these visual artists engage with and/or challenge the official historical narratives about their communities?
- Explain in what ways these bodies of work address racism and the African American/Afro-Caribbean experience in a historical context.
In addition, American Studies classes that address the theme of cultural hibridity in the U.S. can benefit from the work of Cuban-born, Boston-based artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons who believes “it’s possible to live in America and at the same time in Cuba spiritually and mentally.”
Department of Afroamerican and African Studies
The artistic work of these three artists generate interesting questions that can be explored in courses that encourage comparative analysis of race and cultural identity in the African American and Afro-Caribbean communities such as those offered by the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS).
A wonderful teacher pack on Betye Saar is found here: http://interactive.sun-sentinel.com/services/newspaper/education/nie/curriculum/Arts/Betye%20Saar.pdf
Betye Saar’s daughter is also an important artist. Visit this site for a lesson connecting the art of this mother and daughter pair. http://www2.crayola.com/lesson-plans/detail/mother--daughter-griots-lesson-plan/
Cahan, Susan. “Carrie Mae Weems: Reflecting Lousiana” in Carrie Mae Weems: The Louisiana Project, 7-15 (New Orleans: Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University, 2004
Douglas, Andrea. “Carrie Mae Weems: Unraveling Subjectivity.” In Carrie Mae Weems: To Be Continued. University of Virginia Museum of Art, 2006.
Freiman, Lisa D. María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Everything is Separated by Water. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
Golden, Thelma. “Some Thoughts on Carrie Mae Weems.” In Carrie Mae Weems: Recent Work, 1992-1998, 29-34. New York: Everson Museum of Art, 1998.
King-Hammond, Leslie. “Bitter Sweets. Considering the Colored Rainbow Universe of Betty Saar.” In Betye Saar. Colored: Consider the Rainbow, 7-14. New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2002.
“María Magdalena Campos-Pons – Dreaming of an Island – at Spelman College Museum” in Art Knowledge News http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Maria_Magdalena_Campos_Pons.html (Accessed May 31, 2012)
Olds, Kirsten. “Recent Museum of Art Acquisition: Historically Resonant Portrait by Photographer Carrie Mae Weems” http://quod.lib.umich.edu/b/bulletinfront/0054307.0016.110?rgn=main;view=fulltext
Patton, Sharon F. African-American Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998
Piché, Thomas Jr. “Reading Carrie Mae Weems.” In Carrie Mae Weems: Recent Work, 1992-1998, 9-27. New York: Everson Museum of Art, 1998.
http://www.michaelrosenfeldart.com/exhibitions/exhibition.php?i=02E&m=d&w=481&p=7 (Accessed June 4, 2012)
 Sharon F. Patton, African-American Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 263.
 On Weems approach to a documentary style of photography, scholars have said that she “plays with the idea of documentary photography, subverting, even while appropriating, the authority of the genre; reconfiguring its format to better express her subjects’ iconic, metaphoric, or symbolic value, and whatever discourse she chooses to pursue.” Thomas Piché, Jr., “Reading Carrie Mae Weems” in Carrie Mae Weems: Recent Work, 1992-1998, 9-27 (New York: Everson Museum of Art, 1998), 10.
 “María Magdalena Campos-Pons – Dreaming of an Island – at Spelman College Museum” in Art Knowledge News http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Maria_Magdalena_Campos_Pons.html (Accessed May 31, 2012)
 http://www.michaelrosenfeldart.com/exhibitions/exhibition.php?i=02E&m=d&w=481&p=7 (Accessed June 4, 2012)
 This subject has been, until recently, little addressed. See Tiya Miles, Ties that Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
 Susan Cahan, “Carrie Mae Weems: Reflecting Lousiana” in Carrie Mae Weems: The Louisiana Project, 7-15 (New Orleans: Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University, 2004), 12.
 Thelma Golden, “Some Thoughts on Carrie Mae Weems” in Carrie Mae Weems: Recent Work, 1992-1998, 29-34 (New York: Everson Museum of Art, 1998), 30.
 Andrea Douglas, “Carrie Mae Weems: Unraveling Subjectivity” in Carrie Mae Weems: To Be Continued (University of Virginia Museum of Art, 2006)
 Kirsten Olds, “Recent Museum of Art Acquisition: Historically Resonant Portrait by Photographer Carrie Mae Weems” http://quod.lib.umich.edu/b/bulletinfront/0054307.0016.110?rgn=main;view=fulltext
 Leslie King-Hammond, “Bitter Sweets. Considering the Colored Rainbow Universe of Betty Saar” in Betye Saar. Colored: Consider the Rainbow, 7-14 (New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2002), 7.
 King-Hammond, 9.
 Patton, 266.