Saturday, May 11, 2013

From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried


In her body of work, “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” Carrie Mae Weems exposes the subjective nature of historical photography as it serves to stereotype Black subjects.  Weems shows through this collection of 33 chromogenic prints of appropriated photographs how the narrative of African American history is skewed in favor of a white hegemonic perspective.  Through her repatriation of early photographs, we see how attempts at portraying African people served to prove their inferiority and to justify white dominance.  By fusing photographs with more contemporary words, music, and popular culture references, Weems picks apart African American history, or lack thereof, to create a new, more empowering narrative.

Carrie Mae Weems grew up in Portland, Oregon and left at the age of seventeen to become a Marxist activist and later a dancer in Anna Halprin’s progressive San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop.  For her twenty-first birthday she received a camera and began studying documentary photography while experimenting with her own work. She received a bachelor of fine arts degree in photography from the California Institute of the Arts in 1981 and then a master of arts degree in 1984 from the University of California, San Diego. She also pursued graduate studies in African folkore. This fusion of folklore and photography is evident in “From Here I Saw What Happened”  through Weems’s use of appropriated photographs and through her narrative etchings on the glass in front of each image.

In 1995, The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles invited Carrie Mae Weems to create “From Here I Saw what Happened and I Cried” as a response to a previous exhibition in 1992 on African Americans in photography. This exhibition, entitled “Hidden Witness,” sprang from a study of the Getty Museum’s holding of mid-nineteenth-century photography.  One of the original curators, Weston Naff, recalls, “Considering the potential interest and importance of the subject of African Americans around the time of the abolition of slavery, we wondered why there had never been an exhibition or book devoted to portraits of black people...” "Hidden Witness" was inspired by one of the photographs A Family Seated in its Garden, a charming scene of a white family until one notices a forlorn African man alone in the back, left-hand corner, resting on his shovel. The photographs in “Hidden Witness” were displayed in individual, velvet-lined cases in a dark gallery, evoking the exhibition title and the feeling of something hidden.
Daguerrotype of white family with African American man in background.
The Hidden Witness
c.1848Image Credit: Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
 "From Here I Saw What Happened" starts and ends with two royal Mangbetu women who act as bookends to the exhibition and who bear witness to the story.  The first four striking images commence Weems’s larger narrative. The first image of a profile of a bare-breasted, Black, woman reads “YOU BECAME A SCIENTIFIC PROFILE”. The second image, of an older Black man staring straight at the viewer, reads “A NEGROID TYPE”. The third photograph, of a younger Black man, has “AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL DEBATE” etched across his chest, and the fourth photograph , of a nude woman with the end of her long breasts cupped by the encircling frame has “& A PHOTOGRAPHIC SUBJECT” scratched across her shoulders. They are all recently rediscovered and now well-known appropriated daguerreotypes from a nineteenth-century study conducted by Harvard University scientist, Louis Agassiz, who commissioned daguerreotypist Joseph T. Zealy to compose these photographs.

From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried
Louis Agassiz, a celebrated biologist, emigrated from Switzerland in 1846 to work at Harvard University.  It is not clear what peaked his interest in analyzing African American slaves, but in 1850 he commissioned fifteen daguerreotypes to be created of slaves from various African tribes. Alfred came from the Foulah tribe, Jem from the Gullah, Fassena from the Mandingo, two sets of fathers and daughters: Jack and Drana from Guinea, and Renty and Delia from Congo. Agassiz’s objectives in taking these daguerreotypes were to analyze and differentiate physical characteristics of European White and African Black people to prove the superiority of the white race.  The photographs were intended for scientific purposes, and through the evolutionary theory of polygenesis, Agassiz sought to prove that Africans were in fact, a separate species altogether. Agassiz claimed that his attempt to analyze Black bodies had no political motivation, but his claims on polygenesis were popular among southern scientists trying to prove the inferiority of the African American slave. In a letter to his mother, Agassiz wrote about his first interaction with a Black man, “...they are not of the same blood as us.  In seeing their black faces with their thick lips and grimacing teeth, the wool on their head, their bent knees, their elongated hands, their large curved nails, and especially the livid color of their palms, I could not take my eyes off their face in order to tell them to stay far away.”

Perhaps the most striking aspect of these first four photographs of “From Here I Saw What Happened,” is the silence of the subjects.  As slaves, they had no choice but to sit for the photograph anywhere from five to sixty minutes for the exposure, and it is unknown whether they recognized the implications of their participation.  Weems’s etched words onto the glass are almost soothing, as if she recognizes the roles these subjects were forced to play.  In doing so, we as the viewer consuming these images, cannot just sit and wallow in our voyeuristic discomfort, but can join in on recognizing the injustice of being subjected to a pseudoscientific experiment designed to rob someone of their very humanity.

Neither photograph, nor archival system remains completely objective.  Although Agassiz and others insisted that their work was apolitical, it is clear that it was just as political then as it is now.  Harvard University threatened to sue Weems for the appropriation of Zealy’s daguerreotypes in their collection. During an interview for Art21, Weems recalled thinking, “So I thought Harvard’s going to sue me for using these images of Black people in their collection–The richest university in the world. I think that maybe I don’t have a legal case, but I have a moral case that could be made that could be really useful to carry out in public.”  She told Harvard, “I think you suing me is a really good thing, and we should have this conversation in court.”  Weems states that she wanted to be able to set a precedent for other artists who worked with appropriation in the belief that there is more of the story to tell. Paradoxically, Harvard ended up not suing her and actually purchased her photographs for their own collection. 

Weems is not only repatriating these images, she is recuperating these images. Instead of the fetishization of a small, private daguerreotype, Weems enlarges and hangs the photographs.  The images are no longer contained in personal, covered daguerreotypes, they are featured in an exhibition setting.  In “From Here I Saw What Happened,” Weems exposes the exaggerated depictions of Black bodies and communicates the irony of Black subservient roles and stereotypes. As Brian Wallis wrote at the conclusion of his article Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes,  “Weems viewed their lives empathetically from a black point of view. She saw these men and women not as representatives of some typology but as living, breathing ancestors. She made them portraits.”

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