Weems’ exhibit opens at WCMA

On Friday, March 3, a crowd of Williams College art fans, sipping wine and eating very good hors d’ oeuvres, converged upon the rotunda of the Williams College Museum of Art for the much anticipated opening of Carrie Mae Weems’ The Hampton Project.

Williams College commissioned Weems, photographer and artist, to respond to a 19th century photo-documentary of the Hampton School by Frances B. Johnston. The Hampton School was a college established for Native Americans and African-Americans by Williams alumnus General Samuel Chapman Armstrong that provided “model vocational training” and “moral Christian education.”

Weems addressed a crowded room full of mostly white people dressed in black. She spoke eloquently on the Hampton School’s original goal of establishing a “heritage” for its pupils – criticizing the ease with which the “heritage” of the School was assumed to be more worthy than the cultural heritage of its black and Indian students. She noted that implicit in the goals of the Hampton School was a hope that differences between cultures would fade away and that identities would simply blend together. Weems also reflected that the legacy the Hampton School provided was quite similar, and in fact stemmed from, the legacy Williams once tried to provide.

The exhibit presented an orderly division between the old photographs and the new. In one room hung the neat rows of Johnston’s black-framed photographs, which turned the gallery walls into a grid. Her photos provide a glimpse into the school’s academic life – students dressed in stiff suits and abundant dresses learned skills such as bricklaying or how to judge a cow. There are photographs of football teams poised under a large tree that could have come from an old Williams yearbook.

A wonderful photographer and journalist, Johnston suggests in her images the blurry space between attempts at integration and suffocation of a culture. It is interesting to note that art critics believe Johnston was perhaps ridiculing the Victorian society capable of conceiving of such a school.

From the ridged grid of the Hampton School room one moves abruptly into a room of flowing silk-screened images. The suspended muslin-photographs – some depicting the Hampton documentary, some graduation portraits of contemporary African-Americans, and some of Weems’ own images – defy the walls and boundaries of the photographic tradition Johnston established.

The effect is actually pretty fabulous. As one enters the gallery he is confronted with a maze of billowing photographs; one must weave through the onslaught of images, forced to contend with both their enormity and their ethereality. The photographs overlap with each other and blow out toward the viewer, the billowy movement contrasting wonderfully with the quiet starkness of the Hampton School room.

Afterwards, one quickly finds himself at the end of the gallery, arrested by the red block letters stamped across an enlarged portrait from the Hampton School. The text, written by Weems, describes the loss of identity the school inflicted on its students.

I have been an admirer of Weems’ photography for a long time, and having never seen her work in person, I looked forward to this exhibit. After seeing it, however, I was disappointed that the exhibit did not display more original work by Weems. The museum commissioned Weems to respond to Johnston’s photographs. However, original artwork by Weems’s is noticeably absent from the exhibit.

I believe many of the images on display are Weems’ – the mourning poetess Sappho (taken in Pisa), the blue banner with the figure to the left looking at a period picture of buffalo tumbling down a cliff and the images of children with masks and the white African-American papier mâché heads. Yet nothing was taken specifically for this exhibit; Weems assumed more of the role of a curator than that of an artist in the general production. She chose images and they were displayed.

In Weems’ opening talk she recalled poring over piles of photographs in order to choose the images she used in this exhibit. While the artistic tradition of “found images” is well established, I was still somewhat disappointed by this aspect of The Hampton Project. With the exception of the text (which I liked a great deal), I felt this exhibit was more of a response than an artist’s creation.

That having been said, Weems produced an excellent photographic dialogue; there is no question that the statement she makes through her selection of images and texts creates a jarring experience, especially within the context of Williams. I enjoyed the self-conscious process that viewing the exhibit instills. I am partial to silk-screened photographs and this exhibit, in the tradition of Weems’ work, makes excellent use of their potential. There is something uncanny in being able to look into both the front and the back of a photograph, meshing the back of one image with the front of another.

While standing still you can see others walking behind the photographs, blowing the image closer to you. When you reach the end of the exhibit you are forced to turn around and leave the gallery the way you came, viewing the images from behind. It is a wonderful effect and you leave the exhibit quietly, but not necessarily serenely.