Visual activism in the photography of Carrie Mae Weems
This thesis offers a visual analysis of two exhibitions by photographer Carrie Mae Weems, The Kitchen Table Series and From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried. I apply the term visual activism to her work and argue that these two exhibitions offer an activist perspective that challenges the assumptions of her audience and of society in general about the roles of Black people, particularly Black women, in American culture. In the introduction, I present the concept of visual activism and discuss a definition established by South African visual activist and artist Zanele Muholi. The introduction also examines artistic influences on Carrie Mae Weems, particularly Black photographer Roy DeCarava. Chapter One focuses on The Kitchen Table Series. In 20 images and 14 text panels, Weems stages a scene where she is both actor and director. Her use of self- portraiture as a form of visual activism is an intimate use of the individual to question assumptions about race and gender. In Chapter Two, I examine From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, a collection of 34 appropriated images, matted and covered by glass onto which text is etched. Weems reinterprets photographs that were exploitive and voyeuristic in their original context and participates in visual activism by prompting viewers of many cultures and backgrounds to re-examine American history and photographic representations of Black people. The conclusion then works to connect portraiture and visual activism and reiterates how Weems uses text and image to confront issues of race, gender, and the historical representation of Black people.