The Radical Power of the Black Feminine Gaze
Carrie Mae Weems’s unwavering vision sparks dialogue about violence, mourning, and strength.
Black feminists, Black women artists, and Black feminist artists have a laborious tradition in witness work. They imagine futures unseen. They engineer poetic tools of resistance and provocative encounters. Through their paintings, sculptures, images, performances, fabric works, moving images, and writings, Black women convey the essential connections between the body and spirit with compassion for states of mourning and healing.
Carrie Mae Weems’s interdisciplinary practice of portraiture, documentation, and storytelling is a part of this legacy of women who work in remembrance and refusal. Her current two-site exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery is a sharp, meditative assembly of ideas and questions that extend her career-long disruption of conditioned perception and viewership. In her new series, Usual Suspects (2016) and Scenes & Take (2016), Weems tackles power structures as represented by American media, and state-sanctioned violence.
The evolution of Black feminist cultural production and political thought has sought to articulate the intimate relationships between the body and power, the body and violence, the body and capitalism. Weems has frequently drawn upon these dialectic relationships. One of her recurring devices, a Black woman avatar—who is present in photographic work from the Kitchen Table Series (1990) to The Museum Series (2006–ongoing)—relies on the strength of a Black feminine gaze. The avatar confronts viewers with scenes and sites both startling and familiar. This avatar, an enigmatic character whose sightings we have all come to relish, is a witness and a guide.
In a 2009 interview with the photographer Dawoud Bey, Weems said, of the avatar, “Carrying a tremendous burden, she is a black woman leading me through the trauma of history. I think it’s very important that as a black woman she’s engaged with the world around her; she’s engaged with history, she’s engaged with looking, with being. She’s a guide into circumstances seldom seen.” Weems continues, “She’s the unintended consequence of the Western imagination. It’s essential that I do this work and it’s essential that I do it with my body.” Her avatar doesn’t wander or drift about; she is determined. She is a lens, a way of seeing. We look and journey with her.