On the outside of what once was the Spadina Hotel, you can see a larger-than-life portrait of hip-hop queen and actress Mary J. Blige. She’s facing left, proud, her gaze resolutely fixed forward. Her shoulders are engulfed in a sumptuous cape. She’s being presented with a crown. The red monotone photograph bears the word “anointed.” The image is arresting. The performer’s presence inescapable.
This tableau, this moment, is a gift from Blige and from Carrie Mae Weems, who was behind the lens. In a photo session for W Magazine, the two collaborated, or rather, as the latter puts it, ascended. The encounter, timed with the release of the movie Mudbound (2017), for which Blige received two Oscar nominations, including Best Supporting Actress for her interpretation of the sharecropper’s wife, was grounded in deep mutual respect.
“Mary, I see you as an extraordinarily beautiful woman who needs to be defined, described, articulated in an authentic way that celebrates the complexity and depths of your beauty and your internal self. From the moment you walked in, I wanted to greet you personally and invite you into a space of welcome with the understanding that I see me and you,” said Weems, as a greeting. To which Blige responded: “I felt protected today, and I felt you cared, which is not always the case in most photo shoots—they just want the pictures.” The outcome, which includes several other images, is more than a portrayal of a prodigious performer by an equally outstanding photographer. It is the continuation of Weems’ artistic vision. The two collaborated, creating pieces that become part of and extend the photographer’s life’s work dedicated to unraveling, subverting and challenging ways of seeing, discussing and understanding race and gender.
Weems, who is the subject of the major career retrospective at this year’s Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto, began her artistic career in the late ’70s, when she started producing Family Pictures and Stories (1978–1984) during her BFA at the California Institute of the Arts and subsequently her MFA at the University of California, San Diego. Descended from Mississippi sharecroppers, she was born in Portland, Oregon in 1953. Her clan was tight-knit and caring, with ups and downs not unlike most, which the candid black-and-white snaps she took through the years don’t shy away from showing. She shares the joys of a reunion that brought together more than 75 relatives, the chaos of raising numerous kids, her father’s shortcomings, and so on.
The series was conceived as a retort to former American Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan who blamed, in a 1965 report, “the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society” on “the deterioration of the Negro family.” Though flawed, like all households, she demonstrates that hers, and by extension other African-American familial structures, are not weak, and, as such, cannot be blamed for the ills Moynihan defined. From then on, Weems has been, through her art, offering alternatives to the narratives we are presented with and complacently accept as truths. She became widely known following the release of The Kitchen Tables Series (1990), a sequence of textual panels and of photographs set around a table that, in much the same way as a photo-novella, capture the evolution of a woman’s life. Playing the heroine, Weems touches on a range of emotional experiences from love to heartbreak, friendship and motherhood, loneliness and autonomy, as well as negotiating social expectations.
“My responsibility as an artist is to…make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals; to beautify the mess of a messy world, to heal the sick and feed the helpless; to shout bravely from the rooftops and storm barricaded doors and voice the specificity of our historical moment,” Weems said in a keynote address at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville in 2012. In chiseling away at this monumental task, she makes a persuasive case for the civil role of photography as expounded by media theorist Ariella Azoulay. The Israeli scholar sees the photograph as a potential “source of heterogeneous knowledge that may enable us to reconstruct the lineaments of the regime as it exists in practice […] rather than in accordance with the manner in which the regime represents itself.” That is exactly what Weems’ works, which span beyond images to include written and spoken words, archival materials, performance and installation, permit, as individual series and as a complete oeuvre. The pieces on display in several locations across Toronto during this year’s Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival attest to that.
Let’s go back to the Blige portrait, Anointed, for a moment. It can be apprehended on its own, as the expression of the status of the performer, or as a recent addition to the mid-’90s series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995–1996). At the time, Weems appropriated ethnographic portraits to construct a poignant visual poem tracing the objectification of the Black body. Throughout history, it went from being “a scientific profile,” “a negroid type,” “an anthropological debate,” “a photographic subject” to “a playmate of the patriarch,” “and to their daughter,” eventually becoming “boots, spades and coons,” that “marched & marched & marched.” Blige’s portraits add a new line, a new condition: “Anointed.” The act invites the question, by whom? By the Black community who recognized in her autobiographical lyrics an authentic representation of their experience? By the white audience who continues to trade Black talents as commodity?
The place of the Black entertainers in contemporary culture is an ongoing concern of Weems. Almost a decade ago, she began manipulating images of Black women performers, blurring them to comment on the space they hold in our consciousness. Few have made it into official histories, obscured by their male and/or white counterparts. Memories of their contributions to art and society are fading. By presenting them as faint silhouettes, Weems also alludes to their hidden selves. Despite being public figures, they were hardly seen for who they truly were, outside of their stage personas.
The viewer, who in Toronto will encounter a selection of photographs from Slow Fade to Black (2010) along Metro Hall, must pause, strain their eyes, search their visual memory to identify them, if they can. Engaging with this work cannot be done at a glance. It demands attention, which Weems and other photographic artists deserve. “Work interests me when it doesn’t play on a single note, when it has a more complicated relationship to questions regarding modernity and artistic intervention, hopefully becoming a complex layering that offers the viewer something to really live in and think about,” shares Weems, who excels at putting forward artistic propositions that resist superficial readings to call on the audience to play an active role.
More recently, clad in a long black robe, she stood in on the set of TV dramas featuring strong African-American female protagonists for Scenes & Take (2016). The work references earlier series Roaming (2006) and Museums (2006), in which, similarly dressed, she steps towards spaces of power that have usually evaded the Black body. The latest iteration of this performance, two images of which transformed the southwest corner of the TIFF Bell Lightbox this May, “is a way of exploring the dynamic questions of popular culture, and colour and race as it relates to femininity, feminism and sexism, in society and in Hollywood. Suddenly we had Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Empire, all these television shows that 10 years ago simply did not and could not exist because of the Hollywood tradition that denied images of African-Americans in a lead role. You had this profound cultural shift that led to all kinds of questions in terms of how Hollywood could go on to reproduce itself,” she explained during our interview. She paused to exclaim—an eagle was flying outside her window—before resuming: “Colour has always played such a profound role in our lives, even if we tried to abstract it, resist it, fight against it. It has a hold on us. It can’t be shaken. Not yet. So, we negotiate it in a variety of complex ways.”
In Color, Real and Imagined (2014), a piece from Blue Notes (2014-2015), as in All the Boys (Blocked) (2016), both of which were featured as part of the installation at the CONTACT Gallery, faces are obstructed by coloured blocks, a means to signal that “seeing colour” impedes cognition. The former, an archival pigment print covered by a grid of red, yellow, green and blue rectangles, further stresses the idea behind Slow Fade to Black, making clear that the tone of the depicted artist’s skin was a determining factor in how they were regarded, distracting us from considering the person portrayed. The latter speaks to the ongoing, unpunished killing of African-American men by the authorities. Referencing the mug shot, young Black men are photographed facing forward and in profile. Rather than the clinical and cold clarity of a police-record image, which seeks to identify a particular perpetrator, the sitter’s identity is concealed, by the hoodie they are wearing, by blurs and a fog, and by a red rectangle.
This last method of obfuscation strikes a violent chord. It registers as an act of silencing, for their mouths are covered and they cannot speak; an act of censoring, for we cannot see them; an act of erasure, for they cannot be seen. They are represented as they are appraised everyday by white society: as all the same, equally unworthy, fearsome and guilty. Their unique personalities are not allowed to be known. They are presented as diptychs, next to redacted police reports bearing the name of some known cases of police brutality, such as that of Sandra Bland, who was found hanged in her jail cell after being stopped for failing to signal a lane change. Those are chilling reminders of how our institutions continue to apprehend the Black body as dangerous. And also, a rejoinder to confront our own biases. What were our initial thoughts when looking at these images? Did we want to learn more about the person in them? What did we assume about their character? By restricting visibility, Weems opens up and expands the discussion on the dynamic relationship between sight and perception, convincingly highlighting that how we are shown the world, shown the “Other,” informs our views and behaviours.
To deepen the reflection on the violent treatment of people of colour, viewers are invited to take part in an iterative installation, presented under the title Heave, which was on display at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto from May 4 to July 7. In the first room, designed as a replica of a homely living room, visitors can interact with a variety of documentary fragments, such as early copies of LIFE, archival footage and information collected by the artist into several volumes of an encyclopedia of violence. Topics range from climate change to the prison industrial complex, corruption, capitalism, surveillance and the like. There are countless dots for the inquisitive audience to connect. In the second room, the public is exhorted to watch a compilation of videos depicting various form of violence, from the personal, such as domestic abuse, to the international, including senseless wars, inescapable environmental degradation, unrelenting social unrest and so on. Strung one after another, it is a searing and unsettling commentary on our ability to consume mediated tragedy on a daily basis without flinching.
It would be facile, in this instance, to conclude on a dispiriting tone. However, in Weems’ world, as in ours, colour isn’t simply a barrier, it is also cause for celebration. Asked how she remains optimistic when work produced over three decades ago with a political agenda advocating for respect for America’s Black people continues to resonate today, the 65-year-old artist laughs. “I have no other choice,” she said, before adding, “Hope is always gleaming back and smiling at me in all kinds of ways. I try to pay attention to that as much as I pay attention to the horrors that are happening in the world.” Her work enjoins us to do the same. At the CONTACT Gallery, alongside her commentary on police brutality, are vibrant and rainbowed grids. Composed of toned portraits of adolescents and monochromatic coloured panels, Untitled (Colored People Grid) (2009–2010) is a reconfiguration of work from 1990, which sought to honour the beauty and vibrancy of the diversity of African-American people, while also highlighting the absurdity of basing hierarchies on skin colour variations. This dynamic arrangement inspired two newer sets dedicated to the pioneering contemporary Black artists: Spike Lee, who recently received his first competitive Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman (2018), and the aforementioned Mary J. Blige. They stand as vivid mementos of their respective accomplishments that are not to be forgotten, dismissed or overlooked.
What the works selected to be part of this year’s CONTACT Festival make clear is that the consistency of Weems’ purpose cannot be overstated. The lineage between the different bodies of work is manifest, even to the neophyte. More impressive, recent series transform the way earlier ones are interpreted. There’s an endless back and forth between the pieces, one that is likely to have us move to-and-fro between the different locations where they are displayed. The secret to cultivating such creativity: “Simply trying to maintain a persistence of vision and focus. And allowing for the work to do the work. Part of what I do is push really hard against the grain—because I’m not interested in conformity, in any way, shape or form—and against traditions, like western traditions and bourgeois traditions, that deny women and all minorities. At that point, part of my work is to be very focused to arrive at a certain level of clarity of understanding of what I’m trying to scratch at. Then comes a period where I need to allow the idea to surface, to direct the shape and the scope of the work. The process is a squeeze, a contraction and a release. Having a sustained vision, means that you’re really milking an idea and always building relationships between different notions. After all, I’m the same person. I’m not changing all that much. I’m just constantly trying to figure out how to participate in the discussion in the now.”