Weems Talks Back: Carrie Mae Weems Uses the Guggenheim’s Margins to Counter Chauvinism

Dana Khromov


A glance back at any totalitarian dictatorship is testament to the seductive power of rhetoric, and the Italian Futurist Manifesto, showcased in the Guggenheim’s current exhibition, is no exception, evoking fervor in any unsuspecting reader with its call for unfettered revolt:

We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman…

We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.”

Unless, that is, you’re standing in a museum, hate guns, and are a woman.

I headed to the exhibit anticipating the painterly experiments with motion (à la Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash) I remembered from my high school art history class but was sorely disappointed when I passed from the futurists’ pompous declarations—sustained throughout the exhibition in manifestos lining the walls and glass display cases—to the art itself. The paintings, drawings and ceramics fall short of the manifesto’s pageantry and the movement’s ambitious ideals, constituting a vapid body of work that weakly emulates Cubism, Pointillism, and Expressionism.

Fortunately, I was to discover a thirty-year photo and video retrospective of the work of Carrie Mae Weems tucked in the Guggenheim’s annexes. Like the futurists (whose production of manifestos was as prolific as it was bombastic), Weems incorporates text as an integral part of her work, so my weaving back and forth between her work and theirs became a sort of call-and-response that exposed the Futurists’ proclamations as a caricature of fascism and misogyny lacking depth and staying power.

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, image courtesy MOMA

Among the movement’s major tenets, futurists furiously boycotted Italy’s romantic past: “What can you find in an old picture except the painful contortions of the artist trying to break uncrossable barriers which obstruct the full expression of his dream?” Frustrated with Italy’s sluggish response to the Industrial Revolution that brought prosperity to its Western neighbors, Filippo Thomas Marinetti, futurism’s founder and most zealous propagandist published the manifesto on the front page of Le Figaro in 1909. Marinetti called for a break from Italy’s romantic artistic tradition and cultural institutions—condemning them as artifacts of the bourgeois—in favor of technological progress, speed, and war. But the handful of truly great futurist works embodied the contradiction manifest in the movement itself. Following the manifesto is displayed Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, a bronze sculpture of a human-like form whose limbs and trunk fan out in wing-like billows. Contemplating the human body rippling in motion, the sculpture is a magnificent reflection of the futurists’ fascination with speed and mechanization but an (if unconscious) nod to history: while its bronze casting points to technological progress and modernity, its triumphant posture and propulsion forward inevitably evoke the Winged Victory of Samothrace of ancient Greece.

Weems at sixty, still as vibrantly productive as ever, counters Futurism’s very core in her photographs, embracing the past as a means of confronting issues of gender, race and class. Through a range of media, she spotlights traditionally marginalized groups to condemn intolerance and inspire progress toward social justice.

In the first annex dedicated to her work, I found Ain’t Jokin’—a series that confronts racist stereotypes in photos such as “Black Man Holding Watermelon” and “Black Woman With Chicken”—and The Kitchen Table Series, a collection of documentary-style black and white photographs showing the artist at a table, sometimes among company and at others alone.

The protagonists of Weems’ photographs are not shy in their confrontation of systemic oppression nor do they allow their viewers to remain passive spectators. From the photographs in Aint Jokin’, their eyes meet ours unflinchingly as they act out the racist stereotypes in their captions. The result is unsettling: we are forced to consider our own roles—our complicity, at times—in America’s racist past. Where the futurists sought to captivate followers with magnetic rhetoric, Weems appeals to the intellect with her sharp wit to achieve the poignancy of her work.

The Kitchen Table, Carrie Mae Weems

Turning the camera on herself in The Kitchen Table series, Weems likewise engages her viewers with a powerful gaze, inviting us into a hazy room whose shadows she recedes into and emerges from as she slips in and out of various social roles in the photographs that follow. Seductively intimate, the scenes at once make us complicit in the creation and privy to her transcendence of these social roles. Alternatively, Weems plays lover, wife, mother, caretaker, disciplinarian, and friend, but her unshakeable presence backgrounds her husband, friends and daughter, elevating her beyond the domestic setting into a realm of powerful and many-dimensional femininity. The final four photographs of the series show her without her cast of characters, her solitary radiance eclipsing the dimly-lit room.

Invigorated, I doubled back to the futurists in the main rotunda: they were, in fact, the reason for my visit. Among Marinetti’s major innovations was a new form of poetry that went beyond free-form to eschew any sort of structure at all, incorporating symbols and typography to celebrate mechanization. Littering the walls of the exhibit, this concept lacks novelty and depth, appearing instead as schoolbook doodles.

Futurist architecture was similarly impotent. Its proponents disdained the decorative quality of modern architecture and called instead for a “Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, agile, mobile and dynamic in every detail; and the Futurist house…like a gigantic machine.” Each generation, they claimed, should rebuild the city so that its architecture would not persevere beyond the lives of its planners. But this “architecture of calculation, of audacious temerity and of simplicity; the architecture of reinforced concrete, of steel, glass, cardboard, textile fiber, and of all those substitutes for wood, stone and brick that enable us to obtain maximum elasticity and lightness” was never realized and its pictorial imaginings, though foreboding, are hardly inspiring or innovative in the modern age.

Farther up the ramp, the work passes from futurism’s initial “heroic phase” to its second wave, which was visually more vibrant, dynamic, and diverse but ideologically contradictory. With the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 30s, many of the movement’s followers aligned themselves with Mussolini’s regime, which sought to emulate the Roman Empire at its peak, belying their rejection of Italy’s tradition and institutions. But not all futurists supported fascism and the movement lost cohesion as its members diverged politically.

Among the second wave’s major expressions was Aeropittura, a tradition that spotlighted Italy’s preeminence in aerial technology. Though novel at their inception, the dizzying aerial perspectives, captivating at first glance, do not inspire deeper contemplation.

Hurrying past the planes, architectural plans and pseudo-Cubist industrial cityscapes, I came upon another annex that contains Weems’ Roaming series, which—set in the empty streets of Rome—speaks directly to Italy’s imperial history. The photographs show Weems in long black dress, back to the camera, surrounded by the ancient buildings and monuments where both democracy and colonialism have their roots. “Architecture, in its essence,” Weems remarked in Art 21, “is very much about power. If we think about a place like Rome . . . what one is made to feel is the power of the state in relationship to . . . the general populace. You are always aware that you are sort of a minion in relationship to this enormous edifice—the edifice of power.”

Whereas some second wave Futurists (in spite of their anti-establishment rants) celebrated the patriarchal state power manifest in their capital’s famed architecture, aligning themselves with Mussolini, Weems challenges it by guiding the viewer through and thereby reclaiming the spaces—a nod to history that Marinetti and his followers surely would have scorned.

The Futurism exhibition crescendos into its conclusion with a female touch and a dose of good humor. Fortunato Depero’s brightly colored vests—intended to be worn as a mark of radicalism, Balla’s ceramic tea set, and even futurist toys are displayed alongside Benedetta Cappa’s (one of the few women who achieved success in the movement) Syntheses of Communications, a set of five murals that depict air, radio and sea communication while saluting the frescoes of ancient Pompeii. And in case these massive panels are too serious for you, they are accompanied by a mannequin swathed in a befuddling arrangement of gold lamé with a giant red target atop her reproductive zone.

To feature Futurism—a movement of grandiloquent parlance but little substance—as the main exhibition, with Weems in the margins, is both appropriate and effective in disproving its claims. In effect, her relegation to the margins enables Weems’ message to resound more powerfully while the Futurism, which garnered attention primarily for its theatrical reactionism, proved to have little substance to back its claims and petered out quickly at the end of the war.

Dana Khromov is a Brooklyn-based writer, translator and Assistant Editor at Asymptote Journal. She earned her B.A. in Writing from Ithaca College and is currently translating a collection of short stories by a Chilean writer.