“When we’re looking at these images,” Weems said, “we’re looking at the ways in which Anglo America—white America—saw itself in relationship to the Black subject.” Among them are distressing pictures of enslaved African Americans taken by photographer Joseph T. Zealy in 1850. Commissioned by the Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz, they were meant to support racist theories about the inferiority of Black people. Many of the sitters are naked or half naked and depicted as anthropological specimens rather than individuals. The work is bookended by images of a royal Mangbetu woman witnessing the narrative.
Through her presentation, Weems asks us to question the intentions behind these pictures and their dissemination. She enlarged, cropped, and tinted the images, then placed the prints in circular mattes that suggest the camera’s lens, emphasizing the acts of framing and looking. Finally, she overlaid the images with her own texts that expose a long history of systemic injustice. “I wanted to intervene in that by giving a voice to a subject that historically has had no voice.”
Gallery label from 2020
This photograph is part of the work From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, an elegiac sequence of images and text that addresses photography’s complicity in the reinforcement of racist ideas. In photographs African Americans have often been reduced to stereotypes and robbed of their individual identities. Weems’s work is not only a commentary on the representation of black people in millions of photographs, but it also responds to the status and perception of African Americans in the United States throughout history.
The artist rephotographed existing images: scientific, anthropological, documentary, and artistic photographs from the time of the American Civil War through the period of the civil rights movement. She used a red filter to diminish the pictures’ documentary authority and cropped each image to create a kind of telescopic view that emphasizes the viewer’s temporal distance from the subjects. Each picture is accompanied by text written by Weems, etched on a protective pane of glass. The series begins with a profile view of a dignified African woman looking to the right, as if toward the future, and it ends with the same image printed in reverse, so that she appears to look back over the gathered pictures—hence the title of the series. When the work is seen in its entirety, the short texts inscribed on the glass read like a bitter poem.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)