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An American in Rome
A Conversation with Carrie Mae Weems

Her photographic work Missing Link, Liberty provided the cover image for the catalogue magazine Visuell Blind Date, which presented the new acquisitions of the Deutsche Bank Collection this summer. In addition, Carrie Mae Weems, Rome Prize fellow at the American Academy in Rome, has just completed a new photo series and the film Italian Dreams. More than enough reasons for Cheryl Kaplan to meet with the African American artist in the Eternal City for the day to talk about Madonna festivals, Fellini's women, and genetic codes.

Liberty, from "Missing Links", 2004,
Deutsche Bank Collection, © Carrie Mae Weems 2004

In some ways, the African American photographer and filmmaker Carrie Mae Weems is like Zelig, Woody Allen's alter ego in his 1983 film of the same name in which an unflappable interlocutor shows up at just the right historic moment and becomes someone else. While Zelig limited his appearances in social and cultural history to the 1920s and 30s, Weems has a broader timeline and a more specific mission to probe race and gender through her photographs, films, and installations.

Carrie Mae Weems in Rome,
Photo Cheryl Kaplan, ©. Cheryl Kaplan 2006. All rights reserved

Both Zelig and Weems enact situations that reveal how the world shifts from being tolerant to intolerant. In his search for personal identity, Zelig at times demonstrates such tolerance that he literally becomes a double of the other person or a "human chameleon," showing up as President Woodrow Wilson or the baseball hero Babe Ruth. Weems' characters have also included a president (the third, Thomas Jefferson) in addition to the character of his slave lover, Sally Hemings, seen in Weems' installation The Jefferson Suite from 1999; the work, now famous, explored a 1999 genetic research study by Dr. Eugene Foster published in Nature that pointed to the possible patrimony between Thomas Jefferson and Heming's descendents.

The Jefferson Suite, detail, 1999

Photographs printed on muslin banners represent a "genetic truth" along with a narrative titled Let the Record Show and an original musical score. The DNA studies were important to Weems not only because of her own background in genetics, anthropology, and ethnography, but because much of her work concentrates on the concept of exoneration in relation to social injustice and discrimination. Weems casts her protagonists (often herself) as someone not only inserted into the past, but capable of being politically forceful. A striking example is Missing Link, 2004, an edition of six photographs that includes two Iris prints just acquired by the Deutsche Bank Collection titled Missing Link, Justice and Missing Link, Liberty. Each photograph features a minstrel-like figure, one in an elephant mask and another in a donkey mask, recalling Mardi Gras balls in New Orleans, a subject Weems has worked with repeatedly.

The artist, born in 1953 in Portland, Oregon, is one of the pioneers of a political art that makes personal identity its subject. Weems, a sharecroppers' daughter, was also a union organizer in a clothing factory during college. Her visual work gained prominence by the mid-eighties and has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco and the International Center of Photography in New York. This year, she received the renowned Rome Prize from the American Academy.

The Jefferson Suite, detail, 1999

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