James Baldwin's novel If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) takes the reader through a saga of injustice that finds a young black man in prison near Harlem in the 1970s. This is a love story—the lustful, playful kind—between Fony and Tish, intertwined with Tish's family's trust, which strives to keep the couple strong throughout his incarceration and her pregnancy. This is a devastating portrayal of a family that is armed with irony, grace, and intelligence but that still cannot protect the couple from the hate stacked against them. The young woman's narrative voice conveys the terror and the tenderness.

The groans of painful histories, the sighs of joyful family communion, and the acute witnessings of a woman in Baldwin's novel are akin to the voices that resonate throughout Carrie Mae Weems's incisive photographic and multimedia work from the mid-1980s to the end of this current decade. My attraction to the intertwining trajectories of Weems's exquisite work compels me to consider the poetic strategies within her expansive documentary practice. Looking back to consummate projects that address social injustice and cultural violence primarily directed toward African American people allows an investigation into Weems's ingenious reformulations of the traditional means of documentary photography. Her rethinking gives renewed life to the core vitality of the genre: to teach, to warn, and to mourn. Weems's early approaches to documentary photographic strategies began in 1984, working from the early twentieth-century black Harlem photographers' tradition of respectable, honorific portraiture to wryly question this humanistic tradition by introducing provocative strategies necessary for contemporary interventions into the lethal territory of racial politics. Especially important among these reinventions are the ways Weems redirects the documentary gaze in her portraiture practice, metaphorically opening up the narrative spaces between the traditionally static positions of the subject's and viewer's gazes. Infused with documentary intention, her portraits from the past to the present create empathic interactions among those pictured, the photographer, and the viewer/participant. This expansive approach is especially evident in the enchanting portraits in Colored People (1989–90). Weems further shifted narrative stances by unsettling the lines between these overlapping positions in ensuing work, creating new psychic spaces where subject, viewer, and photographer become irrevocable witnesses to the historically traumatic scenarios she evokes. The concept of the witness is especially potent in The Louisiana Project (2003), where Weems's poetic presence within historically charged sites stands in for these intertwining positions. Enlarging the scope of the portraiture genre in these photographs, Weems transforms the narrative ploy of self-portraiture into the resonant genre I refer to as “cultural self-portraiture,” in order to create stark and probing social commentaries.

I am also curious to consider the wry and articulate means through which Weems employs her earlier rethinking of documentary and portraiture genres in relation to her more current rifts on color in Blue Notes (2014–15). Her plays on color, as early as those she deployed in Colored People, make sense out of the nonsense that color does not matter. In Blue Notes and Colored People, as in her entire oeuvre, Weems is working within the realm of the volatility of color as an artistic device and a means of cultural reckoning. In her most recent series, All the Boys (2016), she deploys the poetics of documentary portraiture as evidence calling for cultural accountability. My discussion of these piercing portraits brings this selected survey back to a retrospective view of Colored People.

Weems's artistic thinking throughout the decades reveals a consistent rhythm: an oscillating movement that addresses difficult cultural legacies and then turns toward picturing more intimate encounters, such as those with friends and family. Then, as if reinvigorated, she returns to the considerations of a woman facing intolerable racial bigotry in the United States. Weems's trajectory reveals the psychic necessity to move away from, if momentarily, the devastation wrought by political arrogance, racial hatred, and social injustice. It is through this graceful and steadfast choreography that I feel Weems's need to catch her breath, count her blessings, and then move on to the work ahead.

Weems deploys ingenious strategies to face the historical dehumanization of African American people through her inventive metaphorical interplays between portraiture and documentary genres, as seen in Colored People, one of her most bittersweet series. In this work, Weems counters hateful, racist lies—the fuel that ignites the flesh and blood of cultural annihilation—with an arresting pictorial strategy infused with understatement and irony. Colored People offers close-up portraits of children and teenagers bathed in calm, subtle light. The girls and boys are often posed sitting on a porch or leaning against a front door, framed so close that the background becomes hazily indistinct. Weems applied colored filters over each portrait in a cunning reference to the duplicitous act of naming: its derogatory intentions and its blessed intonations. The double-edged game of naming that Weems deploys makes clear the psychic and bodily harm caused by racist labeling but leans toward more tender ironies. Her whimsical palette deflects harm, mocks the limiting terms of name-calling, turns hateful remarks upside down. These portraits are often displayed with titles such as Magenta Colored Girl, Moody Blue Girl, and Blue Black Boy. Other times they appear untitled in an elegant gesture that endows them with the weight of their own powerful self-representation. In both presentations, Weems offers a lucid reading that illuminates the beauty of the infinite shades of blackness.

Weems allows a respectful gaze into these exquisite portraits, bringing into focus new formations of facing, alterity, and justice. She invites us to gaze upon them with cautious tenderness, to warily lavish in their poise and gentleness. I hear Lucy Lippard's refrain, “the sheer irreducibility of a face, a gesture.”1 These exquisite photographic jewels recall the Levinasian request: the face as a plea for responsibility, the ability to respond. Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas's ethics of alterity is a warning in relation to the difficult places of touching and equitable distance between self and violated other. He wrote, “the face is present in its refusal to be contained.”2 The very presence of the one, in its representation of the insistent plea of the many, touches on the difficulty of the call to respond: “It is easier to annihilate than to possess the other.”3 The face is not one; it is limitless. It is not only an individual, but an event of facing that tests the responsibility of the intact one looking on. Weems's portraits set up such unsettling confrontations. Most of the children's faces do not look out; they reside in a protective space described by cultural critic bell hooks as the disallowance of the gaze that retains a black person's sense of personhood.

IMAGE 1.

Magenta Colored Girl from the series Colored People (1989–90) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 1.

Magenta Colored Girl from the series Colored People (1989–90) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 2.

Blue Black Boy from the series Colored People (1989–90) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 2.

Blue Black Boy from the series Colored People (1989–90) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Yet some of the children gaze outward with various looks ranging from curiosity to self-assurance akin to legal scholar Patricia J. Williams's nuanced and liberating concept that

to look is to make myself vulnerable; yet not to look is to neutralize the part of myself which is vulnerable. I look in order to see, and so I must look. Without that directness of vision, I am afraid I will will my own blindness, disinherit my own creativity, and sterilize my own perspective of its embattled, passionate insight.4 

The multi-gazed portraits in Colored People engender complex readings: the Levinasian plea for intersubjectivity invoking an ethical encounter between the violated one and the responsibility of the other to respond to and acknowledge past annihilations. These portraits provoke the documentary plea to declare, to care, and to mourn. Held in tension with these implorations is the alluring spell that these lovely portraits cast; their sheer youthfulness, enriching sensuality, and implacable calm deflect the identity of the victim. They are situated in self-contained, dream-like territories that call forth inner strength. They are posed for disallowing any possibility of harm, poised for this request, composed for this promise. They appear as talismans, objects given as charms to avert evil. They breathe with self-assurance and self-respect. They assume a calm atypical for children, and a protective calm of utmost necessity for teenagers. Whether looking out or within, these portraits engender an uncanny wisdom beyond their ages, an understated nobility and soulful beauty. Their tenderness is palpable, their skin so soft, sensitive to touch or insult, easily damaged. Tender as irony. Bidding for new transactions. Accepting no tender. Weems's exquisite portraits of these resilient young people bring into focus new formations of ethics, caring, and justice. Graced with the power of hope and love, Weems's Colored People metaphorically defies murderous strategies that generalize, thus depersonalize, a particular ethnicity of people whose lives and passions are as various as multicolored mosaics.

The tender irony conveyed through the portraits in Colored People functions as one side of a bookend held up at the other side by the scathing irony that undergrids Ain't Jokin' (1987–88). In this series, Weems dismantled the obscene mechanisms that fuel racist ideology with a very different pictorial strategy. Rather than accompanying the portraits with texts as caress, Weems deployed compositions that jolt the connotations between portrait and text.

IMAGE 3.

Moody Blue Girl from the series Colored People (1989–90) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 3.

Moody Blue Girl from the series Colored People (1989–90) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 4.

Untitled (Colored People Grid) (2009–10) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 4.

Untitled (Colored People Grid) (2009–10) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

This brutal approach exposes the razor-thin tension between cultural folklore and the overdetermined exaggeration of clichés in order to counteract—and thus contend with—the hateful ideology of stereotyping. Weems creates daunting interplays of generalization and piercing singularity to keep the racist ideology circulating against itself and its deeper lethal implications resonating. Weems is counting on the viewer, in solidarity, to meet the gaze of her specific and singular subjects. The portraits act in contestation against the potent words Weems places below them. These texts are authorless racist epitaphs or, in some cases, literal descriptions that are directed toward those pictured.

IMAGE 5.

Black Man Holding Watermelon from the series Ain't Jokin' (1987–88) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 5.

Black Man Holding Watermelon from the series Ain't Jokin' (1987–88) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

In Black Man Holding Watermelon, the tension resonates on several levels between the wit that undercuts the ludicrousness of the image itself—a dapper young man holding a watermelon like a baby or a trophy—and the text that illustrates this absurd and overdetermined coupling. Take away the words, as Weems does in other iterations of this photograph, and the racist implications that the title insists upon become even more resounding, more stark, if not commonplace. Composed with gorgeous interplays of light and shadow, grounded posture and steadfast gaze, this stately portrait makes it clear that the man portrayed can hold his own.

These innovative, divergent, yet deeply related approaches to unearthing the foundations of racism in Ain't Jokin' and Colored People epitomize Weems's alternatingly explicit and implicit documentary portraiture strategies that serve similar purposes. This crucial methodology harkens back to a set of potent historical precedents in the history of photography—the Berlin Dada photomontages from the early 1930s and August Sander's portraits produced for People of the Twentieth Century (1919–45)—whose potent aims, in kindred affinity with Weems's, were to disarm genocidal state policies and educate the populace. Weems's telling use of disjunctures between respectful portraiture and racist text in Ain't Jokin' recalls the Berlin Dadaists' radical pictorial strategies in their exquisite photomontages. John Heartfield and George Grosz, among this group of artists, photographed images from the popular press that pictured Adolf Hitler's henchmen and Hitler himself—a crime punishable by death. They juxtaposed these photographically derived images with bitingly brilliant text designed to warn the public of the Nazi regime's genocidal policies cloaked in Hitler's hyperbolic spoken and printed propaganda. The Berlin Dadaists' clever pictorial strategy using piercing, discordant text and images turned photographic realism against itself in order to tell the truth and reveal the regime's murderous policies.

Sander's encyclopedic photographic volume and exhibitions of People of the Twentieth Century pictured people from every social level within Germany since the time before, during, and after the Third Reich. These seemingly straightforward portraits of German citizens depicted through their occupations conveyed a deep undertone of egalitarianism and the possibility for cultural mobility and transformation. Sander's potent project not only documented the variety and range of people within German culture during this period, it included portraits of the very people the Hitler regime called out for discrimination and extermination: among them the physically disabled, homosexuals, Romas, Catholics, and Jews. Arranged in groups of people within the same profession, Sander's incisive portraits notably revealed the precise differences among their members. This strategy slyly insisted on the individuality of each citizen by defying the Nazi policy of massing together groups of people based on lethal propagandistic concepts of generalizing and homogeneity. Sander thus coyly acknowledged the mechanisms of stereotyping and redressed its murderous deployment.

Sander's frequent rearrangement of the order of the portraits in his varying designs for the publication and exhibitions of People of the Twentieth Century reveals another strategy of resistance: a circular movement that symbolically suggested the radical possibility for social change within the fixed social hierarchy of German culture that was further enforced by the Third Reich. This seemingly straightforward and benign collection of exquisite portraits was based on egalitarian ideas deeply antithetical to fascist ideology. Sander presented these portraits through a seemingly objective realism that in fact doubled as a defiant documentary warning against Hitler's genocidal regime. They were anything but neutral pictorial realism. Sander's relationship with the people he staged is evident in his egalitarian gaze that conveyed respect for and curiosity about them. His documentary portraits appear like theatrical stagings brimming with German society's lustrous variety. Distanced in time from Weems's metaphorical documentary portraits in Colored People yet deeply akin to her photographic embraces, Sander's portraits similarly worked within the grace of ethical encounters.

Weems further reshaped the narrative and ethical spaces of portraiture in The Louisiana Project. In this provocative and stunningly beautiful series, as in several other related projects from this period, she created new psychic spaces where intersubjective gazes coalesce in the role of witness to the imaginary reenactments she evokes. Weems embodies the enchanted woman/muse who plays out historical memory through her witnessings of the traumatic past. Her stunning presence further enlarges the scope of the portraiture genre in these photographs, transforming them into the resonant genre of cultural self-portraiture. The decoy of muse as witness, the visual poetry of reenacted narrative spaces, and the ruse of cultural self-portraiture create stark and probing social commentaries.

IMAGE 6.

Untitled from the series The Louisiana Project (2003) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 6.

Untitled from the series The Louisiana Project (2003) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 7.

A Single's Waltz through Time from the series The Louisiana Project (2003) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 7.

A Single's Waltz through Time from the series The Louisiana Project (2003) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The scenarios in The Louisiana Project unfold through uncanny realism and devastating surrealism. The narrative begins with the muse roaming through the historically potent territory of an empty colonial mansion and its grounds. We see her in a sturdy white dress reclining on the grass in the foreground, facing the manor house, as if taking stock of the entire scenario. This perspective gives her body an eloquent sense of weight equal to the mass of the mansion. In the next reenacted dream narrative, the woman gracefully strolls toward the manor house entrance, her elegant form showered in light and shadow. Once inside, she stands by the window of a darkened room and looks out. The side of her face and body are delicately illuminated. We next encounter the woman centered in a reception room. She is dancing joyfully, barefoot. The room lights up with her self-contentment and grace. In the next narrative she is seen in shadow occupying a hallway space framed by a view of columns. She leans against the wall as she surveys the land outside. In the final scene the woman, still framed by the exterior columns, exits and moves closer to the land. The light and shadow that had played elegantly on her skin and illuminated the interior spaces has faded, but her body in its psychic proportions remains strong.

The muse's movements within these oblique reenactments of the colonial past that once enslaved her become the sites of her luxurious and lucid occupations. These photographic performances juxtapose historical, contemporary, and psychic time. The woman projects herself into highly charged spaces from the traumatic past; the past seems ever present, yet the uncanny present allows contemplation of what is impossible to imagine. The psychic and historical zones do not overlap; they exist in an intangible space of knowing that only the woman living in and reenacting can ascertain. Her embodied presence takes vengeance on her master and his sordid dominance by taking over the sites of her past bondage. Gracing these spaces with her heavenly lightness and earthly solidity, the woman's sly occupations become revelatory performances. Nonetheless, a stark and horrendous realism underlies their scenarios.

Weems's redirection of the portraiture genre into the inventive genre of cultural self-portraiture suggests possibilities for working through the aftermath of the colonial past. Weems's actual and metaphorical presence within these scenarios function as poetic documentary provocation: the woman gazes back to the past with acknowledgement of sorrow while translucently crossing into the present with solemnity and joy. Wandering through these sites of past inequities with an interior strength gives both the woman/muse and the viewer space to ponder the insipid ways that colonial practices continue in the US in the present day. These embodiments of traumatic legacies from the past into the present suggest incursions into the mechanisms of hateful political and cultural systems. Weems calls upon us to be aware of our historical positions and to respond to the subject in the present who is bound to look back at her traumatic past. Such reimaginings suggest alternative forms of history where call-and-response from the past to the present transforms acknowledgement into active considerations of responsibility. These cultural self-portraits embodied by a witnessing muse create new sites for imagining a more ethical present through sitings from the past. The possibilities for such ethical encounters resonate gracefully in these photographs.

The intersubjective stances among active viewer, shifting subject, and muse/witness in The Louisiana Project are set at bay in Blue Notes. The portraits in this series are culled from media sources, then each is obscured by color blocks that hover over the surface of the depicted person's image. African American people are primarily the targets of these obscured views. However, an unidentified young white man's portrait stands out due to the conventionality of his central and frontal pose and his traditional twill jacket and tie. This portrait presents a stark contrast to that of Jean-Michel Basquiat, also pictured wearing a suit and tie. The difference is in the inquisitiveness of Basquiat's pose, emphasized by the touch of his hand to his cheek. The other portraits depict women in more sensuous and intimate modes seen close up, frontally, and from the back. The color blocks in these portraits barely obscure the viewer's gaze; the intimate power of the women's spaces counteract voyeuristic gazes. For example, Dinah Washington is depicted with her mouth open singing. Ironically, the twelve insistent color blocks over her face barely screen out her voice.

Blue Notes performs with an accentuated tone within the orchestrated rhythm of Weems's work. She slyly plays within the realm of the volatility of color as a means of cultural reckoning and as an artistic device: “How can we use color to obscure, color to reveal, color to laugh at, and color to love? It's not just one thing about blackness. It's a more complicated thing about vitality and richness of color.”5 

Weems puts more emphasis on the damningly duplicitous aspects of color in her recent portrait series, All the Boys, composed of several suites. Considering these piercing portraits allows a retrospective view of Colored People that now functions as its spiritual corollary. Weems's tender portrayal of youth in Colored People did not disclaim the hateful gazes directed toward them; instead, she emphasized the young people's inner strength and impenetrable faces that deflected those gazes. Weems's portraits of young black men in All the Boys continue to metaphorically sustain their spirituality, yet they face explicit dangers differently. These portraits are the harboring component to a recent installation of interrelated works that also include The Usual Subjects (2016), silkscreened panels; Laquan: A Timeline (2018), archival pigment print and silkscreened panel; and People of a Darker Hue (2016), video. This powerful ensemble was commissioned by Louisiana State University Museum of Art and Louisiana State University School of Art, Baton Rouge, in the midst of the shameful, self-congratulatory Donald Trump oligarchy of hate that continues to this moment.6 Weems's new projects work together to give evidence of the current inhumanity reawakened in blatant forms in the streets, in the prisons, and in the halls of injustice in the US. Her current expanded documentary portraiture strategies and installations specifically respond to the unjust killings of black youth.

IMAGE 8.

Blue Notes (Claudia Lennear #1) (2014) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 8.

Blue Notes (Claudia Lennear #1) (2014) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The staged portraits in All the Boys (Profile 1), a suite within the overall series, depict the young men standing in poses facing forward or seen from the side wearing “hoodies.” Although these hooded sweatshirts are worn by people of all ethnicities, they have become the attire that many police officers derogatorily identify to call out black boys and men. Hauntingly referring to prison mug shots, Weems complicates these profiles by depicting the boys in states of surreal contemplation. Weems treats these portraits reverently, illuminating them with an ethereal light tinged with colors ranging from lapis blue to midnight purple. The young men emerge from the darkness, their regal faces and bodies becoming more distinct and specific through the sumptuous color haze. Yet, frighteningly, they disappear within the vaporing blue mist reminiscent of police lights in the night. Some of these unnamed portraits are displayed like those in Blue Notes with their faces blocked, as if Weems is implying that those young men simply living as black are just as likely to be targeted as those who have already been apprehended. These profound and piercing portraits work in conjunction with the stark textual information presented in the installation The Usual Subjects, which documents the apprehensions and killings of nine individuals. These metaphysical and documentary sensibilities coalesce to offer memorials for Tanisha Anderson, William Chapman, John Crawford III, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, and Alton Sterling. Weems recreated their police booking sheets based on the raw facts of their arrests and laid them out in a grid format. This stark and stilled rhetorical strategy shocks the reader and apprehends her senses. Their names stand as indelible witnesses to the injustices they have endured; most of those named were killed due to extreme police brutality, and their abusers in most cases have not faced any criminal charges. The documentation and facts that Weems displays also call on the viewer to assume the stance of the witness in order to give voice to those now silenced.

The metaphorical approach is thinly veiled in this project. Weems is deeply mindful of the implacable questions concerning the (im)possibility of representing historical and contemporary atrocities. The philosophical and aesthetic questions surrounding the limits of representation, especially through documentary means, call forth further considerations. Weems's deployment of a radical reinvention of portraiture in All the Boys allows for such rethinkings of the genre in the service of calling forth current difficult realities. Akin to the theatrical realism of Sander's portraits in People of the Twentieth Century, Weems's employment of portraiture in All the Boys similarly stages warnings. These reenacted portraits compelled by dramatic ruse create indelible and haunting images in which actors stand in for the many. This is a daring move on Weems's part that comes close to and yet knowingly avoids generalizing the one into the many. Generalizing is the underlying convention of stereotyping, and thus Weems's stark and embracing approach to portraiture here is an ironic move. It is also a deeply respectful calculation given the impossibility of picturing the real young men and women who, having been forced into custody, would be off limits and unable to receive any form of pictorial representation.

IMAGE 9.

All the Boys (Profile 1) (2016) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 9.

All the Boys (Profile 1) (2016) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 10.

All The Boys (Blocked 1) (2016) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 10.

All The Boys (Blocked 1) (2016) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

In Weems's reenactments of the real, actors stand in for the many in a majestic gesture of alterity. This is an empathic approach that avoids an aspect of documentary photographic strategy that revictimizes the victim by depicting him or her looking ravaged and barely human. Weems focuses on the systemic reasons that create such inhumane conditions rather than on horrific images that erase the person's humanity. Further employing this respectful approach that insists on evidence and facts, Weems warily reinscribes the documentary real within the space of these projects through a spare use of rephotographed video footage taken from the scenes of the police terrorizing and killing in the video Laquan: A Timeline.

Although tempered, Weems's raw pictorial approach in these recent projects diverges from the diaphanous elegance that unveiled historical atrocities in her magnificent performance Rituals and Revolution (2002), and in many other projects where violence is poetically suggested through metaphorical means, as in The Louisiana Project. A cacophony of urgent voices and images confront us now in Weems's multi-toned documentary approaches to facing current injustices. The stark facts document. The horrific video footage warns. The hauntingly beautiful portraits defy numbing stereotypes. Employing different registers of the real than the metaphorical callings for empathy and respect performed through the chromatic symphonies in Colored People, the lapis blue-hued portraits in All the Boys cut closer to the skin. These uncanny portraits, accompanied with the daunting facts and viewed alongside video footage of specific atrocities, collectively articulate strategies that resist murderous policies.

IMAGE 11.

Laquan: A Timeline (2018) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 11.

Laquan: A Timeline (2018) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Weems's concerted and respectful documentary approach to facing current horrors and their ensuing injustices articulates the implicit question “How can we not respond to them?” In relation to this strategy calling for empathy and engagement, the video People of a Darker Hue includes the recorded voice of Diamond Reynolds as she and her daughter witness her fiancé Philando Castile, a school cafeteria supervisor, being shot multiple times and dying in front of them:

Oh my God, don't tell me he's dead.
Please don't tell me my boyfriend just went like that.
Yes, I will sir, I'll keep my hands where they are.
Please don't tell me this Lord.
Please Jesus don't tell me that he's gone.
Please officer, don't tell me that you just did this …7 

More details about this case of police brutality include the facts that Castile was stopped by police officer Jeronimo Yanez in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, on July 6, 2016, under the pretense that Castile was driving with a broken taillight. Despite Diamond's cell phone voice and video footage, Officer Yanez was acquitted on all three counts: second-degree murder and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. Weems's presentations of this case did not give these details; it provided an orchestrated layering of the traumatic experience so that the viewers could process the inhumanity in order to stop, listen, consider, and, one hopes, form an empathic connection with Reynolds in order to bear witness. Weems's emphasis on the specificity of the people she considers, as in the video Laquan: A Timeline, prevents the viewer from becoming numb to the horrendous nature and number of racially motivated murders of black people. This approach cleverly plays with and against the uncanny indistinctness that emanates from the portraits in every iteration of All the Boys, suggesting the duplicity of gazes that trespass on the men's humanity. Their faces are barely visible through the depths of the surreal luminescent blue haze that engulfs them. We see these young men in resolute stances that echo Weems's hymnal plea from her 2017–19 performance Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, “How do you measure a life?”8 

IMAGE 12.

All the Boys (Profile 2) (2016) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IMAGE 12.

All the Boys (Profile 2) (2016) by Carrie Mae Weems; © Carrie Mae Weems; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

In affinity with the exquisite portraits in Colored People and the ways they bring into focus redefined documentary formations of ethics and justice, those that collectively appear and disappear in All the Boys refocus our attention on the imperative to defy horrendous policies engrained with hate that engender racially based murders. I hear the refrain of Trayvon Martin's mother Sybrina Fulton: “I lived in fear that my child would die like this.”9 Fulton echoed the nightmare that in its horrific proportions calls out the historical rampage of African American people. Recall that Trayvon was lethally shot by George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida. After nationwide pressure, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder in April 2012. Yet in July 2013, a jury acquitted Zimmerman of all charges related to Trayvon's death.

In harmony with the other Mothers of the Movement, in support of Black Lives Matter, Fulton addressed the gathering at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, challenging the audience to care about police brutality and racial inequities: “This is about saving our children.” Their message broke through complacency and racial differences. These women effectively put out a call for intersubjective compassion and critical awareness. Fulton set the terms with grace and urgency, facing the audience and worldwide viewers: “I implore you.” To implore is to cry out, to send a plea. Fulton acknowledged that these young peoples' deaths are affairs that warrant mourning and justice on national and international levels. Yet in the deepest, most unutterable sphere, the death of her son and the deaths of all black children bear down on the achingly empty fields of mute grief. In affinity with the other Mothers of the Movement, Fulton shaped a public face for mourning. The Mothers' vital message is underlined with the imperative that grieving must be accompanied by collective action calling for indelible changes: among them, an interrogation of the racially biased police culture whose policies lead to the unjust killings, as well as investigations into the judicial systems that too often wrongly apprehend and sentence innocent black men and women. Living with the never-ending grief, Fulton is transforming her mourning into representation: she will be running for a seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission in Florida when it becomes open in 2020.10 

The outcries voiced by the Mothers of the Movement and the nobility imbued in their calls for justice reverberate in deep affinity with the spiritual lyricism Weems offers through all of her work. A refrain from Grace Notes: Reflections for Now asks us to

CONSIDER
The slope of a woman's body
And the joy it brings without force
Consider the long days and the restless nights
The vast yearnings of the lonely and the lost
Within ourselves and around us
Consider mood indigo, a love supreme
Anchoring us to the rhythm of life, all its glory
And to a peace yet unknown …
Consider the fascinating wonders of the world
Its extraordinary challenges,
And consider the evidence of things unseen,
The wonders of Grace,
Its meaning and its purpose
While we can …

Reflections of Weems's brilliant poetics and perseverance toward social justice shine through this selection of eloquent jewels from her early and recent documentary portraiture collection. The works considered here form a chorus of ethical strategies for living with and persevering through the current blatant regime of arrogance, injustice, and inhumanity that has long lain woven within the fabric of US history. Her graceful choreography explores a circular and ascending course that proceeds in constant mending through the intolerable and back to the renewal of some form of joy. This supple flow will not allow the spirit to break. I hear Mavis Staples's solid rhythms through Weems's journeys, keeping us moving on. I hear the leitmotif carried by Meshell Ndegeocello's ethereal and bittersweet sensuality, lulling and consoling.

Weems's metaphorical documentary portraits offer warnings, solace, and strength. They reside in the magically resonant spaces of documentary knowing, fictional imagining, and lucidly considered action. Their poetic powers explore ethical encounters that point to redefined geographies of grace, love, and justice.

The artist's trajectory is not linear. It winds like a river flowing through time, culling vestiges along its passage, bringing from the depths lucid insights into current storms. The stones she casts into the rivers of history create spirals that reverberate deep beyond the surface, addressing the scars that continue to rise. Respecting our humanity through her embracing assumption that as viewers of her work we will respond to the dangerous waters, Weems calls upon us to toil. I hear her voice harmonizing with the resilience and grace that Baldwin exquisitely brought to life in the people whose love stories unfold in If Beale Street Could Talk. Amid their excruciating struggles, their spirits invoke us to live in wonder and love in joy.

Notes

Notes
1.
Lucy Lippard, ed., Partial Recall: Photographs of Native North Americans (New York: The New Press, 1992), 16.
2.
Emmanuel Lévinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1979), 194.
3.
Tamra Wright, Peter Hughes, and Alison Ainley, “The Paradox of Morality: An Interview with Emmanuel Lévinas,” in The Provocation of Lévinas: Rethinking the Other, ed. Robert Bernasconi and David Wood (New York and London: Routledge), 170.
4.
Patricia J. Williams, “On Being the Object of Property,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14:11 (Autumn 1977): 11–12.
5.
Tess Meyer, “Carrie Mae Weems and a Shifting Stage,” November 4, 2016, www.interviewmagazine.com/art/carrie-mae-weems#__November 4, 2016.
6.
Courtney Taylor, Carrie Mae Weems: The Usual Subjects (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2018).
7.
Amey Victoria Adkins-Jones, “‘Through a Glass, Darkly: Theological [Re]Visioning With All The Boys,’” in Carrie Mae Weems: Strategies of Engagement, ed. Robin Lydenberg and Ash Anderson (Boston: McMullen Museum of Art, 2018), 63–66.
8.
Grace Notes: Reflections for Now was a collective performance directed and narrated by Weems and curated by Sarah Lewis that brought together video artists, musicians, singers, spoken word artists, and dancers. It was inspired by President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” in the wake of the June 17, 2015, mass shooting that killed nine African American members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. The performance was first commissioned by the Spoleta Festival USA, College of Charleston, Sottile Theatre, Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2016. It traveled to Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, in September 2016 and to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC, in October 2017.
9.
Michael A. Memoli, “Mothers provide a bridge to movement,” Los Angeles Times, July 27, 2016, B2. In addition to Sybrina Fulton standing in for her son, the Mothers of the Movement represented Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Dentre Hamilton, and Hadlya Pendleton.
10.
Marissa Higgins, “Trayvon Martin's Mother Sybrina Fulton is running for office in Miami,” Daily Kos, May 20, 2019, www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/5/20/1859013/-Trayvon-Martin's-mother-Sybrina.