Looking through history

Manipulated photos comment on images from the past in The Hampton Project

Carrie Mae Weems has a deceptively soothing voice. It's a poetic voice that beckons you to come closer, to listen and take a long look at her Hampton Project in the High Museum's downtown photography gallery.

Her voice flows through layers of photos on diaphanous fabric suspended from the ceiling. The gauzy fabric encourages visitors to walk around and peer through wall-sized images in a room where she has created visual connections between the past and present cultural identity of black and Native Americans. Her melodious words speak of "before and after," "pride measured by distance from the past," and "history's veil." She laments the loss of names, country and culture that has accompanied assimilation in America.

The Hampton Project is filled with the irony and tension that accompanies well-executed socially conscious art. Weems was commissioned by Williams College in Massachusetts to respond to Frances Benjamin Johnston's century-old photographs of students at the Hampton Institute, a historically black college in Virginia now known as Hampton University. Her visual narrative examines Johnston's prints and other photographic images from the university archives, as well as selected contemporary photographs.

The vivid result represented an affront to Hampton University. The exhibition will not be shown there. In her catalog essay, Jeanne Zeidler, director of the Hampton University Museum, wrote that Weems had misappropriated historic documents and proposed a questionable critique of education with The Hampton Project. Though shocked and dismayed to see her work rejected by the University, Weems responded: "Appropriation is central to the development of art. It's natural to use it. Some people think that with photography other rules are supposed to apply. I'm interested in rethinking the shape of history. In critiquing those images, I want to reclaim what they mean."

Twenty-seven of Johnston's 8-by-10-inch prints are featured at the entrance to the exhibition. Johnston was commissioned to photograph students of the Institute for a display in the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris.

Johnston's photos are not a straightforward documentary. Her stylized image of Hampton was clearly intended as propaganda. Staged to almost comic perfection, images of black and Native American students recall how Leni Reifenstahl's 1935 film Triumph of the Will depicted the Third Reich's view of social and political realities in Germany. Rather than posing as Olympic gods, the doll-like Hampton students are taking courses in dressmaking, mechanical drawing, geography, American history, science and agriculture.

The manipulation of identity in Johnston's photoportrait of Hampton raises issues regarding the relationship of photography to history and the related role that education plays in cultivating notions of race and ethnicity. In the second half of the exhibition, Weems manipulates those images and others from the Hampton archives. They are enlarged and printed on gauzy fabrics to create an environment that immerses the viewer in a fragmented century of American cultural history.

Photographs of students and families associated with the Institute in the late 1800s and yearbook portraits from Hampton's class of 1934 come into contact with more thought-provoking photos. An Italian tomb sculpture (Sappho, a Greek poetess known for her laments), the Shaw Memorial (an 1897 sculpture commemorating black Union soldiers in the Civil War), Civil Rights protesters, a child and an adult in homemade Indian masks, a KKK meeting and buffalo tumbling into an abyss also haunt the space. Overlying written and audio text deepen the ephemeral encounter. Weems evokes the emotional ghosts of a poignant history in which racism, displacement and compromise played an enormous part.

The artist sees herself as culturally fluid. It was natural for her to empathize with the black and Native American drama that unfolded inside Hampton and beyond. And she's adamant about the importance of unlimited critical dialogue. "I'm very much interested in the ways in which any of us cross boundaries," she says. "I don't have to be Jewish to look at the Holocaust, for example. I should be able to speak about it in my own voice, with my own mind. It's a moral right."

That voice again. Talking about collective social themes is essential to Weems as an artist. She's been exploring issues of color, gender, identity and class for more than 20 years. "I don't think you have much of a choice. I'm interested in stating what I think about the world I'm involved in," she explains. "I want to articulate my vision and emotion as eloquently as I can."

Carrie Mae Weems: The Hampton Project continues through Sept. 8 at the High Museum Folk Art and Photography Galleries, 30 John Wesley Dobbs Ave. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Admission free. 404-577-6940.??

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