In 1990, the African-american photographer Carrie Mae Weems staged a series of black and white scenes at her own kitchen table where she appears alone and with other models. These weren’t straight up self portraits but staged constructions analogous to those produced by Cindy Sherman’s ‘Film Stills’. Alternating the pictures with framed panels of folkloric text, Weems showcased herself as a protagonist of scenes where race, gender and class were staged in the negative which means that she was not defined by her relationships -as a lover, mother or friend- but by her comfort with solitude. By doing this she accomplished two things. Firstly, she translated the already trailed path of identity politics into the more appropriate political language of neo-realism, and, secondly, she delved into the rather unexplored realm of black women portrayed alone instead of in relation to others. It is true that black people are usually portrayed in action instead of in meditation but these images do not take us too far in that direction.
These are, however, the Obama years in which African-American self made matrons such as Oprah Winfrey and her friend Gayle command the mores of late capitalism with a rhetorics of love which can be articulated in as many ways as possible. The Oprah Winfrey world is one of win win relationships which seems to contradict the win lose dialectics of the everyday world. The hiatus between the ideal and the real is softened through that sort of motivational discourse that functions as a prologue to anti-depressants and mood normalizers. In this context, it does not come as a surprise that many black artists are being showered in honours transforming glory into a new form of ghetto. It does not come as a surprise that Weems has already been granted a Mac Arthur ‘genius’ grant,a Medal of Arts from the U.S State Department and a retrospective at the Guggenheim for a rather mediocre piece of work.
The truth is that, as an artist, she is a one trick pony who dares to say the following: ‘I am the first African-American woman to have a retrospective at the Guggenheim. Not to sound pretentious but I should be having a show there. By now, it should be a moot point for a black artista but it is not’. Hence, it does not come as a surprise to see that she defines herself not as an artist but as a ‘cultural diplomat’.
A couple day ago, I have reviewed another example of African American cultural/ethical manipulation of the autonomy that art must have. I am referring to the case of Theaster Gates who has become a real estate tycoon by manipulating his way through a socially guilty collector base in order to achieve his non-artistic goals. This case is less flagrant but the way Weems verbally rejects ‘art’ in favour of ‘politics’ makes me wonder where the contemporary arts politically correct banality is taking us. Just a thought.