Carrie Mae Weems

Transnationalism in Contemporary African American Photography

Memory, History and ‘Universal’ Narrative in the Work of Carrie Mae Weems

The work of contemporary photographer and image maker Carrie Mae Weems has always invoked history, not only tracing the material markers of its processes, but also preserving and commemorating its discursive forms. Over two decades, Weems has moved from documentary-style, captioned, black and white prints to elaborately deployed installations involving complex assemblages of visual and audio elements. In these pieces, images may appear on gauzy banners that surround the viewer, or in poster form, accompanied by text passages or audio elements, and objects. She is currently working in film. Just as Weems’s pieces have been linked by repeated formal elements, they have thematized recurrent issues concerning identity and the presence of the author in her work. The increasingly diffuse and inter-textual forms of her most recent work underscore a wider range of historical concerns. Foregrounding new elements of specific narratives we might think we know, ‘Leading us to new ways of thinking about history’, as one critic says (McInnes 1999: 20), this work engages as well the possibilities of a universal referent. 1 Weems herself is among those author Richard Wright called ‘first born of the city tenements’ (Wright 1988: 142). As Wright’s family had done in the 1920s, Weems’s parents and other family members left Mississippi sharecropping, moving to Portland, Oregon in the 1950s, where Weems grew up. Wright’s 1941 image and text narrative of African American migration, 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, amalgamated his own experiences with those of ‘the collective humanity’ of ‘we millions of black folk who live in this land’, creating what he called a ‘folk history’ (ibid.: 5-6, 12). Trained in folklore as well as art, Weems found a model in Wright; her 1991 installation ‘And 22 Million Very Tired and Very Angry People’ links her work explicitly to 12 Million Black Voices, and, as we shall see, other work echoes, transmutes, and explicates for a new generation -and different gender -Wright’s assertion (in the language of his time) that ‘theme for Negro writers will rise from understanding the meaning of their being transplanted from a “savage” to a “civilized” culture in ail of its social, political, economic, and emotional implications’ (Wright 1994: 104).

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