Re-Appropriating the Archive from Below. Part 1 

Post by Elisa Adami

The archive has to be read from below, from a position
of solidarity with those displaced, deformed, silenced,
or made invisible by the machines of profit and progress.

Allan Sekula

Photographic archives have largely been used as an instrument of colonial power and employed to transmit a deformed image of non-Western populations. Black people were depicted in the same visual language as the flora and the fauna; represented in their ‘natural habitat’ as in the conventions of natural history photography; or invariably relegated to the lower orders of the species. This was the main purpose of the daguerreotypes commissioned in 1850 by Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, who travelled the American South with a photographer, making portraits of slaves. Agassiz intended to use these portraits as visual evidence to support his theories of the racial inferiority of Africans, and to prepare a taxonomy of physical types in the slave population1.

From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried  (1995) is a work by artist Carrie Mae Weems which unveils and subverts the logic behind these colonial archives. The work is composed of 34 19th-century photographs, many of which were taken from Agassiz’s collection. “When we’re looking at these images,” Weems has said, “we’re looking at the ways in which Anglo America—white America—saw itself in relationship to the black subject. I wanted to intervene in that by giving a voice to a subject that historically has had no voice.”2

Carrie Mae Weems - From Here I Saw What Happened 2

Weems appropriates and alters the colonial photographic archive, offering a reading from below. She rephotographed and enlarged each of the existing images, using a red filter when she reprinted them. She placed the prints in circular mats and beneath glass that had been sandblasted with text. The brief and lapidary sentences act in place of the many voices that have been silenced by history. Regarding her choice of text Weems has said: “I’m trying to heighten a kind of critical awareness around the way in which these photographs were intended.” She hopes this strategy “gives the subject another level of humanity and another level of dignity that was originally missing in the photograph.”3 Through re-appropriation and deconstruction, Weems reveals how photography has played a key role throughout history in shaping and supporting racism, stereotyping, and social injustice.

1 Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History, (40)

2 Carrie Mae Weems, audio interview for Moma 2000: Open Ends, The Museum of Modern Art and Acousticguide Inc., 2000. Listen to the full interview here.

3 Ibid.

Listen to the artist speaking of her work.

Visit the artist’s website.

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