A black female comedian delivered a joke recently on TV that went something like this "I think it's important for white people to get to know black people better...at least then, you might have a reason for not liking us." Jokes, stories and anecdotes pass from generation to generation can sustain prejudice, but they can also help us understand our own personal history so that we can draw strength from knowing who we are.
Carrie Mae Weems investigates the power of racial jokes and explores the tradition of oral history in her work which incorporates photographs, narratives, autobiographical accounts and hearsay. Weems feels that "there is something grand in the knowing and creating of ourselves, and something grander still about how we know and create our personal histories." She transforms these feelings into photographs and text that expose our need to understand our personal prejudices while uncovering our profound will to ignore them.
In the hands of a less skilled artist these ideas could be overwhelmed by reactionary ramblings or dismissed as rhetorical preachings. Weems is a skilled storyteller, she conveys her strong personal convictions so that her point is embraced , while the listener is engaged by how the story is told.
Carrie Mae Weems was an Artist-in-Residence at Light Work from July 1-30, 1988. She lives in Northampton, MA and teaches photography at Hamphshire College in Amherst, MA and at Hunter College in New York City.
Jeffrey Hoone (c)1988
The seminal Kitchen Table Series by Carrie Mae Weems is widely recognized as a masterpiece of performance and story-telling within the photographic image. In this series, Weems uses a subtle vocabulary of props, gesture, and gaze to frame complex questions about identity, gender construction, representation, parenthood, and the nature of human relationships. Weems describes her intention of Kitchen Table Series as a personal view on the world around her, “I endeavored to intertwine themes as I have found them in–racial, sexual, and cultural identity and history–and presented them with overtones of humor and sadness, loss and redemption.” The nonlinear narrative and issues presented in Weems’ Kitchen Table Series remain as topical and thought-provoking today as when the images were first created in the early 1990s. Rendered in exquisite black-and-white, this Gelatin Silver Print is hand-printed by Griffin Editions in New York City.
See more at: http://www.lightwork.org/shop/carrie-mae-weems/#sthash.h3fN0A09.dpuf
In organizing the exhibition "Un/Common Threads: Selections from the Light Work Collection," curator Kaylen Williams went beyond a superficial perception of diversity that has become pervasive in the United States. As a 2007 study by the sociology department at University of Minnesota revealed, many Americans happily endorse diversity as a nebulous concept; however, many are still at a loss to discuss the specifics of diversity and its related sub-topics, such as gender, race, ethnicity, economic status, and sexual orientation. (1) "Un/Common Threads" harnessed the power of photographs, using a visual language to voice these all-important specifics of diversity. Williams used the visual language that coalesced among the various images to stimulate dialogue about the complex challenges of a pluralist culture in ways that addressed both broad and personal implications.
Exhibiting together the work of artists such as Myra Greene, Dawoud Bey, Clarissa Sligh, Yuri Marder, Hank Willis Thomas, and Binh Danh, among others, certainly highlighted the individuality of their concerns and aesthetic choices. Yet this varied grouping also served a common goal by giving voice to specific, possibly contentious topics surrounding diversity. To emphasize this unity of purpose, Williams combined the “Un/” in the exhibition title with “Common Threads,” acknowledging the connections that can occur between diverse artists and the viewers of their work.
Many of the photographs in "Un/Common Threads" manage to evoke the idea of connections and also simultaneously turn it on its head by asking viewers to re-examine preconceptions that they may bring with them into the gallery. Ellen M. Blalock’s photograph, "Jermane," a portrait of a black teenage father pictured full-frame in an intimate embrace with his baby daughter, may provide a good example of this phenomenon. Those who find themselves jarred by the tender presence of emotion displayed by the young African American father must question and explore the sources of any biases regarding age, race, and gender. This is the inherent power of such photographs—when a viewer accepts involvement in questioning such preconceived connections, he or she is more inclined to get involved in talk of answers that can lead to a deeper understanding of identity and diversity.
Many of the artists whose work curator Kaylen Williams, a graduate student of Museum Studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Syracuse University, selected for "Un/Common Threads" engaged the topic of diversity from a personal perspective. Regarding her impetus for organizing the exhibition, Williams explains, “This project was of particular interest to me because of my own ethnic background of Japanese and Western European ancestors. Many students on campus are, like me, a mix of diverse cultural backgrounds. My Japanese mother was adopted by Americans and never had an opportunity or the encouragement to explore her racial identity.” In culling this selection of images from the Light Work Collection, Williams invited viewers of Un/Common Threads to explore the diversity of identity and to participate in the critical mass that follows an expansion of consciousness.
Laura A. Guth (c)2008
1. Joyce M. Bell and Douglas Hartmann, “Diversity in Everyday Discourse: The Cultural Ambiguities and Consequences of ‘Happy Talk.’” American Sociological Association: American Sociological Review 72, no. 6 (December 2007): 895–914.
The exhibition was on view in the Robert B. Menschel Photography Gallery from January 16 to April 19, 2007. It was curated by Kaylen Williams. The exhibition included work by the following artists: Don Gregorio Antón, Dawoud Bey, Ellen M. Blalock, Binh Dahn, Sylvia de Swaan, Lonnie Graham, Myra Greene, Saiman Li, Yuri Marder, Nzingah Muhammad, Osamu James Nakagawa, Suzanne Opton, Kanako Sasaki, Clarissa Sligh, Tone Stockenström, Lida Suchý, Hank Willis Thomas, Linn Underhill, and Carrie Mae Weems.
When she curated the exhibition, Kaylen Williams was a graduate student of Museum Studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Syracuse University. She graduated in 2007.
Laura A. Guth is an artist and educator. She lives in Manlius, NY.