CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On Election Day, it may be worth taking a second look at Carrie Mae Weems’s “The Power of Your Vote,” a video a little over three minutes long intended to galvanize voters.
The video features a diverse cast of New Yorkers going about their business on the streets of Jackson Heights, in Queens: a black woman in a cerise-colored blouse, a Sikh with a snow-white beard, a smiling Latina girl perched on the shoulders of an unseen parent or babysitter, a New York City police officer. The video builds to a shot of two young people making an “OK” gesture by joining thumb and forefinger and then looking through it like a spyglass.
Midway through the video, a flurry of bubbles flits across the screen, an inexplicable phenomenon that echoes the audio component of the video: a recording of President Barack Obama’s address to the Congressional Black Caucus on September 18.
“Even if we eliminated every restriction on voting, we would still have one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples,” said President Obama. “I am reminded of all those folks who had to count bubbles on a bar of soap, beaten trying to register voters in Mississippi, risked everything so that they could pull that lever.”
This work is, in effect, an endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president and has been promoted on hillaryclinton.com, where Weems is characterized as a kind of aesthetic warrior, “using photography as an agent for social change.” Her desire to engage in political combat is motivated in part by the systemic victimization of black men, a phenomenon that has been amplified by amateur videos of police misconduct disseminated via social media.
“This is the most important election of our lifetimes,” Weems told the campaign. “And I think people are disheartened by the political system. Even as Obama has been in office, we have more black men dying on the streets through systems of police brutality than we can remember in our time.”
The video, which was edited by Yao Xu, is currently playing on a continual loop in Harvard University’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art, the site of a solo exhibition comprised of 52 works of photography and video installation produced by the artist over a 23-year period. Carrie Mae Weems: I once knew a girl… is arranged along three axes: the construction of black beauty, the legacy of influential black figures, and the power dynamics inherent in monumental civic architecture.
Upon entering the exhibition, one encounters a series of works that attest to the fading cultural memory of Jazz-era black female performers. In “Slow Fade to Black II (Lena Horne),” we see a black woman in a strapless gown with one hand on her hip and the other stroking her hair. The subject is out of focus, somewhere between visibility and invisibility, presence and absence, life and death.
As the viewer proceeds up a ramp and through the corridors and nooks of the Cooper Gallery, designed by the Ghanaian British architect David Adjaye, she encounters Weems in a variety of guises: a supine nude holding an oil lamp in a riff on Marcel Duchamp (“The Broken, See Duchamp,” 2012); the naked model and would-be lover of a modernist painter (“Framed by Modernism,” 1997); and a solitary figure dwarfed by the neoclassical facade of the Philadelphia Museum of Art — and, by implication, denied entry to the inner sanctum of the aesthetic class (“Philadelphia Museum of Art – Philadelphia,” 2006). In this exhibition, Weems is everywhere at once, guiding the viewer as she scouts the recesses of the gallery’s meandering space.
At the heart of the exhibition is a room that investigates the symbolic valence of President Obama, regarded by different constituencies as a talented statesman, the avatar of social justice, a foreign-born imposter, and a harbinger of American decline. In “The Obama Project” (2016), projected on a screen opposite a vitrine with children’s coloring books, President Obama is pictured as Abraham Lincoln, the Joker, Howdy Doody, a leopard, Adolph Hitler, Mao Zedong, and Jesus Christ. In the narration that accompanies the video, Weems probes the rhetoric — messianic, paranoid, vitriolic, deranged — directed at the first black president.
“He was both a symbol of our failure and a symbol of our freedom, a symbol of our loss and a symbol of our highest aspirations,” the narrator says. “He was also considered by some a weakling, a demagogue, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a snake, a liar, an alien, a charlatan, a zebra, a Joker, a Joker’s joke, a Zeus, a Jesus, a jester, a jiver, a Socialist, a Communist, a doctor, a lawyer, and an African chief.”
Here, as in “The Power of Your Vote,” Weems presents the country as a place of division, a bubbling brew of hope and desperation and love and hate. Jackson Heights and, by extension, New York City is a microcosm for the country: a land of opportunity and despair, privilege and privation. Just a few miles from Jackson Heights is the 58-floor Trump Tower, home to international footballers, Hollywood glitterati, and, of course, a certain bombastic hotelier intent on restoring American supremacy.
Weems is asking us to deny him that chance. “Democracy is hanging in the balance,” she said, “and there is only one choice: Hillary Clinton.”
Carrie Mae Weems: I once knew a girl… continues at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art at the Hutchins Center, Harvard University (104 Mount Auburn Street, 3R, Cambridge, Mass.) through January 7, 2017.