This is a guest post written by Lauren Turner, Assistant Curator for the Collection at the Ackland Art Museum.
When Carolina Performing Arts presents Carrie Mae Weems’s Past Tense on April 19, the audience will see an internationally renowned artist lead a multimedia performance that investigates tensions of race, instances of violence, and demands for justice by combining spoken word, live orchestration, and still and moving images. To complement Past Tense, the Ackland Art Museum will exhibit Weems’ Not Manet’s Type from the museum’s collection, on view March 13 to May 12.
Not Manet’s Type is a 2001 offset photolithograph reproducing the second installment of a five-part photographic series created in 1997. A nude self-portrait of the artist, it shows her standing in a classic contrapposto pose at the foot of an unmade bed, as reflected in the round mirror of a dresser. Each work in the series features her in different positions in this bedroom, with accompanying text in which she deliberates how to prepare for critical study. Weems begins the series with: “STANDING ON SHAKEY GROUND / I POSED MYSELF FOR CRITICAL STUDY / BUT WAS NO LONGER CERTAIN / OF THE QUESTIONS TO ASK”.
By serving as both muse and creator, Weems imparts a sly duality to her challenge: is she referring to the scrutiny of her as the composition’s subject, or the critical study of her artistic output as a whole? At the time of this work, while there was much examination of women as the subjects of an artist’s gaze, less existed in regards to considering the representations of women of color in visual culture (or the lack thereof). This left Weems with the tricky imperative to introduce such representations while at the same time attempting to unpack them in her role as an underrepresented creative voice.
In Not Manet’s Type, Weems guides her rumination by incorporating mentions of canonical figures of art history in her texts. Below the image in the Ackland’s print is: “IT WAS CLEAR I WAS NOT MANET’S TYPE / PICASSO – WHO HAD A WAY WITH WOMEN – / ONLY USED ME & DUCHAMP NEVER / EVEN CONSIDERED ME”. By actively positioning herself among such recognizable artists, she both offers a familiar entry point with which viewers can engage while also laying the groundwork for exploring inherent power disparities in the art world. She closes the series with a self-portrait of her relaxing across the room’s bed above the observation “I TOOK A TIP FROM FRIDA / WHO FROM HER BED PAINTED INCESSANTLY – BEAUTIFULLY / WHILE DIEGO SCALED THE SCAFFOLDS / TO THE TOP OF THE WORLD”.
In this regard, Not Manet’s Type has a commonality with Past Tense, which parses the significance of contemporary topics like police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement by framing them against Sophocles’ ancient Greek tragedy Antigone, a play concerned with a struggle between legal obedience and moral imperative. By turning again to a conventional cultural touchstone, Weems cuts through society’s frequently divisive rhetoric around these current-day subjects to emphasize instead the continuous and universal human need to productively mourn our losses.
Lauren Turner is Assistant Curator for the Collection at the Ackland Art Museum.