Photo by Jack GouldCarrie Mae Weems must be a terrific artist. Art in America says so, sorta, with qualifications, at length. She's a political artist for whom race is the driving force, which is cool by me. And her voice is mellifluous and lyrical—if that's Weems reciting the audio component of the big installation that bears her name front and center like a Broadway marquee.
The main gallery and a smaller room are given over to the historic photos of one Miss Frances Benjamin Johnston. Then, in a large side gallery, Weems "reinterprets" Johnston's works by blowing them up onto muslin sheets, hanging them from the ceiling and adding a soundtrack—et voila!—top billing for Weems. Oh, well. At least Johnston's contribution is right there for everyone to see; it's the kind of citation Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose would do well to emulate. On second thought, as many of the Johnston photos come courtesy of the museum's permanent collection, it seems more likely that the museum—not Weems—saw fit to offer Johnston the credit.
And Frances Benjamin Johnston's photos are fascinating. One room is given over to luscious portraits she did of Washington, D.C.'s powerful women, including several Roosevelts, muckraker Ida Tarbell, author Frances Hodgson Burnett and Susan B. Anthony; Alice Roosevelt Longworth (Teddy's headstrong daughter) is shown leaning against a wall, practically drowning in floofy lace and satin. Her expression is thoroughly modern: she looks sulky and fast.
A successful photojournalist at the turn of the century, Johnston was asked to document the success of the Hampton Institute, a pioneering academy (now Hampton University) whose purpose was to assimilate newly freed Negroes into white society. (A similar program for Native Americans didn't have the same staying power.) These photos are stacked along the walls of the main gallery, and they're as fascinating for their titles as for what they show. One is titled Physics: Estimating the Combined Draught of Horses. In it, several black men in formal dress gather around a pulley; one is on a ladder, making adjustments. This photo is the least formally composed; most eschew movement or the organic clustering of bodies for arranged stillness. Small children from the primary school sit at desks with hands folded. Men and women (there seems to be an even gender division) sit in classes with the titles Drawing, Watercolor, Mechanical Drawing, Bricklaying, Agriculture. (One photo is titled Animal Life: Collecting Specimens; another is Sampling Milk, in which men and women, still in their formal dress hats and suits and high collars, stand about in a barn). The classrooms are nice and well-tended. The people look nice. Everyone is very sober, though perhaps that's because they're so constrained by their heavy clothes and the formalizing presence of a camera.
Reading the wall text, it's easy to conclude the Hampton Project was one of those well-meaning but finally condescending attempts to save black folks from themselves; after seeing the pictures, you're left instead with an impression of a fine, collegiate experience, with an emphasis on "learning" rather than "assimilation."
So what does Weems bring to the equation? Obfuscation, not clarity. She occasionally adorns a Johnston photo with a quote, and the soundtrack playing throughout the gallery is pretty, if so tranquil that it's impossible to concentrate on what that soporific voice is actually saying. Sure, everyone's a DJ these days, but a sample's no longer a sample when you use the whole work and add just a quote of your own.
Aside from that, the exhibit is badly installed. The muslin sheets on which Weems printed the photos are sheer, and light shines through them. So when they're crowded three feet behind one another, high up in the air, everything becomes a muddy mess. One needs to walk in between them and then crane one's neck up; it's not the most flattering vantage point.
One sheet bears the print of a statue—Venus? It's impossible to tell because shining through it is the view from outside the museum window before which it hangs. It's a lovely view: grass and shrubs and pink dogwood trees. But you can't see the damn work.
According to the museum website, Weems "challenges the ideological program of the Institute, looking closely at the issue of assimilation as expressed through patterns of education, social mores, and etiquette." I suppose she does, most obviously when she plays with the fact that the Institute was founded by missionaries: one photo bears the legend "With your missionary might you extended the hand of grace reaching down & snatching me up and out of myself." Yeah, nobody likes a missionary. And yes, "assimilation" is a suspect term, evoking as it does the loss of one's own identity in order to conform to the crowd. But would Weems rather that the missionaries hadn't cared about Virginia's poor blacks? Would she rather they'd been denied an education—which nearly everyone else was adamant should be the case—and were left instead to the paradise that is sharecropping? Or maybe she'd rather all the Africans had been shipped back to Liberia?
So in 1900, white people were condescending (stupid, condescending, white bleedinghearts!) to black people? Think of the alternatives!
It seems odd for Weems to pick on the Institute—even in this half-assed fashion—when there remains, 100 years later, actual raw, visceral, bloody injustice to decry. She could start by taking Benetton's magazine spread on death-row inmates, blowing up the pictures, and inserting her name in the title of each.
"Carrie Mae Weems: The Hampton Project" at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-5761. Through April 21. Open Tues.-Thurs., noon-8 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., noon-5 p.m. Free.