STORY and PHOTOGRAPHS by FRIDERIKE HEUER
Today’s musings are dedicated to my friend Henk Pander, who died last Friday. Our last phone call, two days before his death, lasted but three minutes before he handed the phone over to his beloved wife Jody. He was tired after laughing at the memory, prompted by my day’s visit to the Getty, of a heated argument about the art of Carrie Mae Weems over a decade ago. The Portland Art Museum had shown a retrospective of the artist and I had been invited to give a lecture on her work from the perspective of a social scientist, tackling the implications of art addressing racism in direct and indirect ways. I honestly don’t remember what Henk’s and my disagreement was about, but I do remember the passionate exchange about art and its impact on society, a kind of exchange that was one of the cornerstones of our friendship, re-enacted over and over again. Once we had ticked off daily developments in our lives, and the perpetual topic of what it meant for each of us to have emigrated to the U.S., every single conversation rerouted back to art, to making art, to employing art as a tool of capturing more than beauty; a means of taking note, drawing parallels, exposing power and expressing resistance. Driven by both, our conscience and the hope that a better world would be possible.
Henk’s art and life have been described with empathy and clarity in this obituary. It lays out the complexity of the man and the artist, fully apprehending the magnitude of the loss for the art world as well as his family and friends. Henk’s work will continue to live on and, should we be so lucky, be understood as clarion calls for generations of viewers to come. May his memory be a blessing.
I had debated if it was crazy to go on opening day of the exhibition, assuming Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue might attract crowds that I’d have to avoid. But I had no other commitments that day and chanced a visit to The Getty. A fortuitous decision, as it turned out, since the halls of the Los Angeles museum were still empty that morning and the few visitors mostly masked.
In fact, everything was sort of empty, surprisingly so during the week of spring break, approaching Easter. A few tourists, judging by foreign languages; a group here or there. In a way, the absence of distractions made the architecture stand out even more against the azure sky of that day. The beige travertine stone from Italy split along its natural grain to reveal the texture of fossilized leaves and branches. It reflected lots of light, the different off-white enamel-clad aluminum panels and so much glass shimmering and glistening in the bright sunlight, occasionally disrupted by cold gusts of wind.
Designed by architect Richard Meyer, it is a compound — half underground, half above due to height restrictions — encompassing more than just a museum up on the hill above Los Angeles. Museum conservation programs, administration offices, research libraries, and grant institutions are part of the campus as well, and the scale of it all can best be assessed when viewed from above.
Here are a few images to convey the views: bright, bold starkness softened by lots of curves. I did not photograph the gardens, however, which struck me as pedestrian and strangely not at all in sync with the architecture.
A selection of sources discussing the architecture in depth, admiration and criticism alike, can be found here.
The photographic exhibition that opened that day has traveled across the nation, from the Grand Rapids Art Museum to the Tampa Museum of Art and the Seattle Art Museum. It now has its last showing at the Getty. Four decades of selected work are on view, created by two friends who met in 1976 in Harlem, New York, and inspired each other ever since to explore, document, and address issues of race, class and identity within historical and contemporary power structures.
It is a powerful reminder of the role of retrospectives that only museums can fill: providing the chance to see an accumulation of the artists’ work over a lifetime, giving us a perspective that is not just affected by the sheer quantity of the work on display, but also by how things shifted qualitatively. It allows us to see how multidimensional the artists’ approaches were, how faceted and yet thorough. Museums have historically played a role in how reality is constructed — often in ways that clung to the established and familiar. To open the door to contemporary, and, importantly, critical approaches to the use of imagery in identity formation — so central to Dawoud Bey‘s and Carrie Mae Weems‘ photographic oeuvres — is a welcome move.
Dawoud has been the recipient of multiple fellowships, including a MacArthur Fellowship, the Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography, NY, and induction into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum, among others.
Weems grew up in Portland and is a trustee of the Portland Art Museum. Her honors include a MacArthur Fellowship, the prestigious Prix de Roma, the Frida Kahlo Award for Innovative Creativity, the WEB DuBois Medal, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, the BET Honors Visual Artist Award, the Lucie Award for Fine Art Photography, and the ICP Spotlights Award from the International Center of Photography. This March she was named the 2023 Hasselblad Award laureate by the Hasselblad Foundation, an international photography prize that is granted annually to a photographer recognized for major achievements, and is called the “Nobel Prize” of photography by many of us.
The five sections that present the two artists’ work are grouped by thematic pairings, allowing us to assess commonalities and differences in underlying principles, artistic approach, and selection of subjects across more than 40 years. They include work that (re)constructs and resurrects Black history, or looks for revelations in the landscape (A requiem to mark the moment by Weems, for example, or Bey’s exploration of the landscape of the Underground Railroad segments.)
My immediate reaction when seeing the juxtaposed work of these two friends and colleagues, each such a powerful photographer and activist on the contemporary scene, was a sense of dichotomy. One could think of Bey as a poet and Weems as a dramatist, or alternately, Bey as a listener and Weems as a talker — and I mean that with full admiration for either approach. They both home in on the power and ubiquity of prejudice, which, of course comes in many forms, whether racisms, classism, sexism, ageism, you name it. It always includes a mix of discriminatory behavior targeted towards a particular group, discriminatory beliefs concerning the group, and usually an emotional element such as fear, anger, or even disgust directed at the targeted group. Crucially, prejudice needs to be understood within the historical context, and forms we see now may be very different from those at the formation of this nation, in both legal contexts and the personal one — in our awareness of our own prejudice, or the ease or willingness with which a particular prejudice is expressed publicly or acted on.
In the context of this show about the Black experience, racism is as good an example as any, with modern racism or implicit racism — automatic, unconscious, unintentional — still being tied to a culture that routinely links the idea of Blacks with the idea of deviant behavior, or a set of ideas, mostly bad, that concern violent crime, poverty, hyper-sexuality or moral corruptness. Think of it like this: when I ask you to respond to the word peanut butter, for most people the word jelly emerges quickly and spontaneously. That association is independent of whether you like that kind of sandwich, or despise it, or have never tried it. The link between those two words has been established by the frequency with which you have encountered the pairing in your lifetime; it is anchored in your mind outside of awareness. This is the same for racist stereotypes flourishing for centuries in a culture that had a hierarchical valence of white over Black. You might not act on those beliefs, you might deny them, but the associations are carried by most of us through permanent exposure to the linkage of Black to negative or threatening concepts, whether we are aware of it or not, whether we have the best of intentions and the most egalitarian politics.
What can be done? We can draw attention to the stereotypes (and for that matter, the historical burden of racism) with the hope of motivating people to intercept their own mental associations. Or we can pull attention away from prevalent stereotypes by offering alternative representations. Each of these approaches works best in different settings, and both artists have employed both approaches.
Bey’s portraiture explores the subject with indirect subtlety, hard-to-decipher metaphors, trenchant depictions, acting like poetry that goes deep to listen inside and then provides a road map to new ways of seeing. New work includes a series titled after a line in Langston Hughes’ poem Dream Variations: Night coming tenderly, Black. The photographer pursues history, reimagining how a fleeing slave would have perceived landscape stretches along the Underground Railroad, under the sheltering cover or darkness, or tinged by the darkness of the unknown ending of a perilous journey. It is incredibly moving work, all the more so since it is unpeopled — in stark contrast to the portraiture Bey is rightly famous for. I only wish the very last words of the poem’s last line — “like me” — would not have been left out of the title. It would connect then and now, having a contemporary stand-in for the departed, one whose sense of safety and freedom is still not guaranteed in 2023 America or, worse, is increasingly threatened.
Weems’ imagery uses powerful staging both in early and later work, including private and public, almost theatrically arranged sets, amplified by literal scripts that guide us into the thicket of our own stereotypes and beliefs. The intense beauty that she captures or instills into her staged photographs reminds me of the song of the Sirens, beguiling you while always containing the undertone of something haunting or violent that lies in wait for us. This is true particularly for those series that replace widespread stereotypic views with alternative representations (the Roaming series, for example), in contrast to those where she makes the horrors of racism and the history of marginalization screamingly explicit (“From here I saw what happened and I cried.”)
A 1984 book by French philosopher Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, talks about how photographs contain implied meanings and depict seemingly naturalistic truths. But he points out that photographs can also, in a paradoxical way, become the tools to question meaning. I find in the work of both artists the strength to challenge existing power structures; to undermine the ways that traditional images generate and maintain cultural dominance.
If the structure of societal norms defines how we look at something — our hapless use of the colonizing gaze, shaped by historical expectations — both artists’ work manages to subvert our way of looking at and/or applying stereotypes related to race, class and gender. Their photography, across the decades, has adopted a permanent practice of subversion, opening a path to integration and equality, rather than oppression and marginalization. Or, in Weems’ own words upon being made the Hasselblad Award laureate:
“To be recognized comes with the continued responsibility to deliver on the promise made to myself and to the field, which is to shine a light into the darker corners of our time and thereby, with a sense of grace and humility, illuminate a path forward.”
To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me—
That is my dream!
To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.
Langston Hughes – 1901-1967
From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes.
The Getty Center
- Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue
- April 4–July 9, 2023
- Tuesdays–Fridays, Sundays, 10 a.m.–5:30.p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m.–8 p.m.; Mondays closed
- 1200 Getty Center Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90049, USA
This essay was originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on April 12, 2023.