"Carrie Mae Weems pursues the arts as a cultural worker. As an artist committed to radical social change, she has created artwork that incisively examines, among other subjects, issues of race and racism, class and classism, gender and sexism" (Piche 9).
Primarily focusing on issues of race and gender within her work, Carrie Mae Weems has created a voluminous portfolio of work that questions hegemonic ideologies in different aspects of African discourse. What roles Africans, primarily African women, played within different aspects of history remains an important question within Weems' work, which she attempts to answer through photography and video. Carrie Mae Weems' photographic series Not Manet's scrutinizes ideologies of beauty existent in the twentieth century through exemplifying acclaimed works of art from this period. Utilizing photographs of her own body in an intimate setting as the subject and juxtaposing each photograph with text, she ruminates over the role and rendering of Black women within the works of Edouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and William de Kooning. Thus, Not Manet's Type alludes to the hegemonic attitudes of European society towards women of color while simultaneously bringing women of color into the foreground of discussion of Modern art.
Prior to this essay, Not Manet's Type has been noted but not extensively researched in relationship to race, Modernity, and beauty. Therefore, this study is the first to expound upon beauty ideologies in both this photographic series and Modern art in addition to exploring racial archetypes for Black women in Modern art in relationship to Not Manet's Type. In the book Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, scholars Deborah Willis and Franklin Sirmans comment on the aesthetic qualities and tone of this work, but they do not explore ideas of racial beauty in Europe nor do they discuss the artists named by Weems. Scholars, like Sirmans, often overlook this series, instead focusing on Weems' more popular work such as the Kitchen Table Series. To explore and further understand Not Manet's Type, this paper will discuss Carrie Mae Weems as an artist, the series itself, the history of race and representation of Black women in Modern Europe and America, and the representation of Black women within works by Pablo Picasso, Edouard Manet, and William de Kooning.
Carrie Mae Weems as an Artist
Born in 1953, Carrie Mae Weems is an American artist that works in a variety of mediums including video, film, and photography. Throughout her artistic career Weems has created a myriad of artwork that explores issues of race, sex, beauty, and the African experience. Similar to other postmodern American photographers like Cindy Sherman, Weems often plays the role of model, photographer, and editor of her work in order to have full creative freedom. Still an active artist primarily working in America, she has received countless awards for her contributions to the field of art including The Albert Award for Visual Arts, Visual Arts Fellowship, Photographer of the Year, and many more ("Women in Photography International Distinguished Photographers 2005 Award Carrie Mae Weems").
Carrie Mae Weems started her artistic career with documentary photography. After receiving a camera from her friend in 1971, she began using her camera to "document activities of the political groups she was associated within the San Francisco Bay Area via general photographs of antiwar demonstrations, feminist marches, and left-wing political events " (Piche 10). From an early age, she realized that photography was not only a medium for creative expression, but also, it could be utilized as a powerful instrument to convey revolutionary ideas. Storr (2012) points this out, saying, "the goal of documentary or naturalistic art has usually been to shed light on dark corners of social reality and the public conscience, places beyond the keen of the "average viewers" or deeper in the guilty souls than most willingly go." (Storr 2012:21).
Early in her artistic development, Carrie Mae Weems became substantially influenced by Roy DeCarava, an African American artist that focused on issues of race and beauty within his work which inspired Weems to do the same. Hence, "she was particularly inspired by DeCarava's visual representations of black subjects that invert the dominant culture's aesthetics, in which, informed by racist thinking, blackness was iconographically seen as a marker of ugliness" (hooks 67).
Weems began using her photography to not only document political and cultural events but also as a tool to explore ideologies of race, sex, and beauty within contemporary and historical societies. "She saw the medium's ability to rewrite black cultural myths and provide counterpoints to negative perceptions and stereotypes" (Delmez 1).
Decentralization is another prominent theme of Weems' work. She strives to bring the Black subject, rather than the White subject, into mainstream discussion in order to express a previously underrepresented experience in her works. "Weems's decision to concentrate on black subjects was a challenge to white cultural hegemony, it signaled, more importantly, the emergence of a lifelong commitment to recover and bring to the foreground subjugated knowledge relating to African-American experience" (hooks 66-67). Weems believes that sharing this experience can be transformative to all viewers rather than solely a Black audience. She has yearned to insert marginalized people into the historical record in her works and hopes that her work will be accessible to people from all different backgrounds. She does this not only to bring ignored or erased experiences to light but to also provide a more multidimensional picture of humanity as a whole, a picture that ultimately will spur greater awareness and compassion (Delmez 1).
Her utilization of the Black subject has proved troubling, however. Weems states, "One of the things that I was thinking about was whether it might be possible to use black subjects to represent universal concerns... Yet when I do that, it's not understood in that way. Folks refuse to identify with the concerns of black people express which take us beyond race." (Piche 11). Although this has created issues, she hopes that issues in her works will soon be viewed as universal and accessible rather than art that solely comments Black issues.
"Beauty is a central theme in the photographs of Carrie Mae Weems. She uses historical and personal memory, biography, music, art historical references, and reenactments to state, perform, and create beauty" (Willis 33). Yearning to explore beauty ideologies in her pieces, she often uses herself as the model in her work to explore preconceived ideas of beauty within society. The tone of her work ranges from humorous to somber, but each work strives to challenge the viewer's ideas on beauty, race, and sex and how each of these institutions is intertwined.
Carrie Mae Weems' work can be compared to that of contemporary theorist and feminist bell hooks. Hooks, like Weems, strives to bring the Black experience to the forefront of discussion while simultaneously attempting to make it a collective experience opposed to an isolated one that can only be understood by a particular audience. In her work, hooks largely focuses on the issue of Black self-hatred: the idea that White supremacy and domination has forced the Black community feel that blackness needs to be negated in order to fit in to mainstream society. Hooks writes, "Rather than using coercive tactics of domination to colonize, [White supremacy] seduces black folks with the promise of mainstreams success if only we are willing to negate the value of blackness" ("Black Looks Race and Representation" 17).
Since the twentieth century, beauty has been inscribed in terms of whiteness in both America and Europe. This has an adverse effect on the self-esteem of Black women in society...