Strategies of Engagement at McMullen Museum of Art
Our current political storm is exposing how few people (myself included) have a solid knowledge of the history of racism in America. Books like The Strange Career of Jim Crow, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, or Hope in the Dark are replacing the navel-gazing literature of Karl Ove Knausgård or the ambient-metadata poetics of Tan Lin. We are in an era where knowledge is a double-edged weapon that grants power and exhausting anger, and we can’t afford to look away.
Carrie Mae Weems, who has a remarkable solo show at Boston College, has been developing a creative anthropology of American history for her whole career. This retrospective at the McMullen includes work from 1987 through 2018 that inspects both our micro- and macro-histories by considering monumental topics like suffering and cultural exhaustion, or by digging in archives to uncover local evidence of who we are.
Strategies of Engagement is filled with discrete projects, including one from the Getty (that also used images from Harvard, which threatened to sue Weems for using them in an unapproved manner) about how anthropologists used the body to justify pseudoscientific claims; one from Williams College about how well-meaning Northerners used education in the reconstructionist South to assimilate freedmen and Native Americans into white patriarchal Christian society; and an ongoing hydra of a project identifying, listing, and creating metaphors for those who are killed by the police in this country.
It’s a tight show that could deal with a few more square feet to really breathe by physically separating the projects, but you exhibit with the gallery you have. It’s honestly the right thing to do to show as much work as possible, as Weems is a powerhouse of creativity and truth. Many of her more exhaustive exhibits have investigated her work from the point of view of photographer rather than as a thinker, including Three Decades of Photography and Video, which traveled extensively in 2013-14. In 2016, Harvard’s Cooper Gallery exhibited a solo show that primarily engaged her self-portraiture that questions how architecture interacts with humanity rather than emphasizing her mastery of the photographic medium. But that’s the exception that proves the rule.
To say this is a show about race is to make it someone else’s problem. This is a show about America. The title says it all: Weems is an artist who is looking for strategies to engage who we are and what we experience as Americans. If we can listen to other people for once, and stop defining “Real America” as thinly as possible, maybe we can find a moment of clarity.