The Universality of Being Singular:
The Self-portraiture of Carrie Mae Weems

In bell hooks’s essay “Carrie Mae Weems: Diasporic Landscapes of Longing” (1996), hooks engages the art of Carrie Mae Weems with the impositions of race-based ways-of-seeing upon art made by artists of color and/or depicting ‘subjects of color.’ hooks posits Weems as “…[relying] on strategies of deconstruction to challenge conventional perceptions created by our attachment to fixed ways of looking…” (175). She alludes to the notion of deconstruction as early as her essay’s title; elaborating ‘diaspora,’ hooks ties Weems’s art to a feeling of fragmentation that can be scaled up to mean the geographic scattering of community and peoples, or scaled down to mean the internal fragmentation of self (or selves). hooks ties this theme of diaspora to Weems’s ability to destabilize a code of seeing when she writes, “Carrie Mae Weems’s photoworks create a cartography of experience wherein race, gender, and class identity converge, fuse, and mix, so as to disrupt and deconstruct simple notions of subjectivity” (174). Weems’s 1990 photo series Kitchen Table Series plays upon this multiplicity of self and captures a universality that seems counterintuitive to the hyper-specific moments and feelings depicted. Visually and rhetorically toying with notions of continuity and discontinuity, Weems thus asserts herself as universal as she divines a self that is at once specific and unknowable.

Carrie Mae Weems’s black and white Kitchen Table Series photo-text piece consists of twenty photographic self-portraits depicting Weems in various scenes centered around the kitchen table. Sandwiched between anecdotal written narratives, these photographs show lovers, friends, and children as they move into, around, and out of the scene. While Weems remains present in each photograph, she depicts herself in moments of profound specificity: a wary eye at her partner mid-card game, bottle of alcohol on table; caressing a mans head over plates of lobster, claws still banded, Budweiser cans in the corner; eyes closed and leaning back into the hands of another woman as the woman brushes Weems’s hair. It is this precise banality that makes Weems’s photographs so striking. As hooks acknowledges, Weems systematically implicates class, race, gender, and dynamic personality through the inclusion of deconstructed moments. In one photograph, lobsters nod to socioeconomic identity; in another, a Malcolm X poster nods to identity-community. She becomes a mosaic of mother, lover, friend, and most importantly, individual. The moments of social sparsity—Weems tucked into her knees, waiting phone implicating isolation; Weems standing up looking directly into the camera’s eye, hands planted on the table as she leans in toward the viewer—place the viewer not in the kitchen as people move in and out, but instead place the viewer into Weems’s specific subjectivity (although she is not ‘Weems’) as she experiences the dynamic setting of the kitchen table. Weems grounds the kitchen table experience in herself as subject and thus rejects the stripping of any generalizability to a statement on race as she implicates her many roles and facets of identity construction.

This is not to say, however, that Weems-as-subject is not a universal subject. It is that specified banality that allows her to conquer as universal. By insisting upon a multiplicity of identity, Weems rejects the habitual distillation of her art into pieces for and about blackness, she makes claims on a universality that is ritually denied of her and other non-White artists. Weems’s “emotional landscape” is episodic but stable, fragmented but fused, and it is Weems who denies the landscape’s dislocation from profound individual subjectivity—the experience of ‘self’ dominating over the experience of fictive racialized homogeneity. It is by embracing her individualized subjectivity that she is able to persist on that universal theme: the universality of being non-universal.

Weems articulates her like-imaged subject along this boundary of discrete and abstract: alluding to comprehendible selves that are complicated a moment later. She suggests her dynamism without ever containing it. Weems is able to achieve such a perceptible elusiveness by asserting continuities of subject and settings that she instantaneously disrupts and defies. In this fragile confrontation, bell hooks’s formulation of ‘diaspora’ again finds itself key: “…Weems imagines a diasporic landscape of longing, a cartography of desire wherein boundaries are marked only to be transgressed, where the exile returns home only to leave again” (178). She indulges in familiarity and then makes the scene simultaneously strange again. Weems grounds her viewers’ experience in this semblance of familiarity with her strategic use of written narrative. This narrative binds her subjects and grants the reader a false feeling of “knowing.” The viewer is able to become acquainted with Weems’s subject, to follow her narrative, to know her space, and then is consequently dispossessed of this sense of ‘knowing.’ Weems follows “he,” “she,” and “they,” as these “corn-fed-healthy-Mississippi-stock folk” transition from strangers who met in “August/September” through lovers who call each other “butter-cup” and “candy-daddy” (Text 1, 4). Weems leaves them in violent resolution: “One day he placed a match-box on her clothes. It was time to book” [original emphasis] (Text 8). Weems’s use of narrative fosters an assumed logic of continuity: while never naming the man and woman, Weems allows their behaviors, their personalities, to assert themselves. The story unfolds and it makes sense that it is linear—the characters and histories appear conserved. Yet, Weems quirks the story’s coherence by never defining the actors in the narrative with given-names. She suggests logic, she suggests linearity, she suggests a graspable narrative, but she never grants the viewer-reader the solace of knowing, of containing the people and the happenings. Weems’s delicate narrative teeters on the edge of insecurity, never quite indulging the reader as entire.

Weems replicates this disruptive linearity that her narrative poses as she weaves continuity and discontinuity together using visual anchors in her photographs. The episodic structure of Weems’s narrative reappears in the series’s image structure. Weems focuses this binary upon the complication of both subject and setting. Weems’s twenty gelatin silver prints feature herself as subject, however, she complicates her depiction by presenting her body, her image, not as Carrie Mae Weems herself, but rather as an ‘other.’ She becomes a model, a presentation, and rejects her name-as-label. Weems abstracts herself as “she” and consequently loosens the viewers ability to “know.” She grounds herself-as-subject as central by persisting as the only stable and clear presence. She is present in each photograph and in five of them, she is the only subject depicted. She is never blurred, unlike her friend who leans over the table, or the young child and adult woman who play across the table while Weems sits, hands on her face and book on the table. Weems asserts her image as visual anchor—she is the subjectivity that these photographs depict. Weems continues to assert her centrality at the same time that she disrupts the viewers ability to know her.

The first photograph in the Kitchen Table Series is essential to Weems’s self-framing as central. At the end of the table, Weems sits robed with one hand on the table and the other at her face. The mirror in front of her is tilted upward and is accompanied by two cups, a brush and a comb, a pack of cigarettes, and a bottle of alcohol. The walls are bare and the light that hangs from the ceiling shines white. Leaning over her left shoulder is a male-appearing figure resting his weight on his left arm while he bows his head down. His identity is alluded to but rejected at once. He wears a black hat which blocks the camera’s view of his features, allowing for the black circle formed by his hat’s rim to entirely consume his portrait. In the shadows of his hat, a black tie contrasts against a white dress shirt, framed by his dark suit jacket. There is an implied intimacy to his gesture, a coming-home of sorts. The moment appears private and not-to-be-seen by an outsider. Yet, Weems looks out above her mirror straight into the camera’s, and thus the viewer’s, eye. She immediately inducts the viewer into the plurality of subjects. She knows she is seen, and she sees too. Weems confronts us. She asserts herself and immediately claims subjectivity. She proclaims herself actor and subject.

As Weems’s series continues through her self-portraits, she slips between the imaged world and the one occupied by the viewer. In some photographs, she looks at another framed subject, in others her eyes are closed, and in others her face is obscured entirely. Thus, understanding Weems’s photographs as portraits, and more importantly, self-portraits, becomes paramount. Weems ritually remakes herself, complicating her image and therefore the subject who its viewers attempt to know by looking at her image. As the looker looks at her, Weems allows herself to be looked at. She allows herself to be seen in a myriad of ways, to become a quilt of identities, personalities, and emotions. Crucial, however, is that she looks back. In this ritual confrontation, Weems’s rejects all kinds of containment. She is continuous and self-disruptive. The viewer cannot know her because she declares and defends her subjectivity, even as she alludes to herself as a quasi-character and precisely because she alludes to herself as a quasi-character.

By interlacing sporadic moments of insecurity into her photographs and narrative, Carrie Mae Weems enacts identity on the stage of the kitchen table. She disrupts the ‘diaspora’ and places it as a source of unity, rather than disunity. Within that emotional landscape, home is essential and elemental. Home, however, is not constructed around space. In fact, Weems photographs illuminate space’s illusion of intransience: the structure of the room, the rectangular wooden table, the Windsor chairs, and the round hanging light are ever-present, stable, and continuous. Yet, Weems exposes the illusion: she puts a Malcolm X poster on the wall, a bird cage in the corner, or hangs a tapestry above her head. Weems recenters (or decenters) home around the making of and the experience of space. By placing herself as central, she identifies the web of subjectivities in which people and communities find recognition in one another; she confounds diaspora and allows it to be a beacon of unity, rather than a defeat in scattering.

Playing upon (dis)continuity, (dis)unity, and utter peculiarity, Weems finds herself “abandoning notions that reason is the only way to apprehend the universe” through her art (hooks 177). Playing upon conceptualism’s deconstruction of semiotics, Weems’s use of the visual and written form becomes key to denouncing reason and asserting subjectivity in its complexity. Neither her visual nor her written elements establish coherence. Instead, the integration of the two antagonizes each other’s inaptitude at providing a digestible reality-as-real. The two forms expose their mutual fragility and shatter the notion that reality is anything but an illusion obscuring the multiplicity of subjectivities inherent to the experienced world. Weems’s series then suggests that universality come not from definition, but from liberating subjectivities from the confines of coherence. She convolutes the viewer’s expectation for linearity, logic, and comprehensibility, instead asserting in all her complexity the universality found in an always-elusive singularity. Weems becomes a stable portrait of that inherent instability of being and thus declares herself: universal.

Works Cited

  1. hooks, bell. “Carrie Mae Weems: Diasporic Landscapes of Longing.” Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of 20th Century Art, edited by Catherine de Zegher, Boston: ICA, 1996, pp. 173-179.
  2. Weems, Carrie Mae. Kitchen Table Series. 1990.