The National Gallery of Art has acquired Untitled (1996, printed 2020) by Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953). It consists of seven inkjet prints, each a reproduction of a historic photograph and each framed with sandblasted text on glass. Weems layers text and images to center African American perspectives, constructing a nuanced history that speaks of racial pride, resilience, sacrifice, and determination. It joins a robust collection of Weems’s work that includes a diverse range of photographs and prints from throughout her career.
The first and last photographs in Untitled are reproductions of a 1973 photograph by Richard Benson of soldiers depicted in Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial. Etched into the glass on the first photograph are the words “Square-toed and flat-footed we came walking out of the wilderness in twos & fours heading north toward industry toward hope.” The text on the last photograph reads, “Once out of the storm came the act of naming our voices crackling with resistance rose from deep within and bid us rise & stake our claim block by block.”
Other prints in this series reference music and religion. The second and sixth images reproduce a photograph by Russell Lee of a processional outside a church on the South Side of Chicago in 1941. The glass on top of one of them is etched with the score of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday”; a page from the score of Miles Davis’s “All Blues” appears on the other. The third and fifth images are reproductions of photographs by Doris Ulmann of the ceremonial act of foot washing, and the fourth picture reproduces a late 1910s portrait of the Morris Williams family by an unknown photographer. The text etched into the glass on top of these three pictures alludes to the Great Migration of African Americans to the North after the Civil War: “Guarded by Angels of Mercy we cake-walked to Mood Indigo into Shy-Town--The Windy City--Chicago”; “Arriving in Bronzeville we became killers of sheep men of letters, women of steel”; “Jet Black or Indian Red our scale of values differs from that of the world from which we have been excluded.” The pictures and text create a work that echoes the plea to God from the lyrics in Ellington’s score: “Please look down and see my people through.”
Installed on the Boston Common in 1897 and reworked in a 1900 plaster version on view at the National Gallery, The Shaw 54th Memorial commemorates Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first regiments of African American soldiers formed in the North during the Civil War. It depicts the 54th Regiment as they marched through Boston on their way to the South, and it has been hailed as one of the finest examples of 19th-century American sculpture, celebrated for its sensitive rendition of the soldiers. Revealing the enduring power of Saint-Gaudens’s memorial, Carrie Mae Weems incorporated images of it into her art a hundred years later to commemorate another march—that of African Americans streaming north from the Jim Crow South