The images were chosen by the artist from a number of archives, including daguerrotypes of slaves taken in the 1850s, and extending to the 1950s and the Civil Rights era. The sequence begins and ends with an image of the wife of a Mangbetu chief, taken in the 1920s in the Belgian Congo, creating the impression that she is bearing witness to this tragic history.
Weems rephotographed and enlarged the images, overlaying them with a red tint and mounting them behind glass. A series of texts were etched onto the glass to form a powerful, poetic commentary. Text and image show African Americans being forced into servile roles, such as cooks, maidservants or sexual objects. They are presented as evidence to prove dubious scientific theories, and as stereotypical characters in novels.
With the image of a man’s brutally whipped back, Weems does not shy away from the violence underlying slavery. She is also willing to confront the complexity of this history, showing that some Black women were forced to give birth to their masters’ children, while another is accused of being an ‘accomplice’. Above all, by addressing the subjects of the photographs as ‘you’, the text encourages the viewer to recognise each face as an individual rather than as an ethnographic or historical type.
Curated by Mark Godfrey