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Expressing the Individual

Carrie Mae Weems, May Flowers, 20022002

Carrie Mae Weems, May Flowers, 2002, chromogenic print, printed 2013, Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund, 2014.3.1

How is identity shaped, formed, and expressed?

How can works of art help us understand our world and ourselves more fully?

“I always think about the work ultimately as dealing with questions of love and greater issues of humanity. The way it comes across is in echoes of identity and echoes of race and echoes of gender and echoes of class.” —Carrie Mae Weems

“It is necessary for me to utterly repudiate so-called good painting in order to be free to express that which is visually true to me.” —Bob Thompson

“Most of my work, when I look at it, is about memory and loss” —Jim Goldberg

Studying artists and their works invites explorations of identity and the human condition. What drives artists to create? What choices do artists make, and why? Sometimes artists directly engage with questions of identity in their artwork: Who am I? How do I relate to others, and how do they relate to me?

Identity is shaped, formed, and expressed in complex ways. Many artists featured in this module directly engage with race, gender, and class. For example, the works of Carrie Mae Weems prominently feature African American women. Other artists question their own—or others’—ways of looking and being, as Jim Goldberg does in his Rich and Poor series. For many artists who live and work in the US, contending with notions of identity is further complicated by the country’s complex history. Consider Deborah Luster’s project One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, which pictures the effects of mass incarceration unique to the United States.  

As you explore the works of art in this module, consider what feels satisfying, surprising, confusing, or unfamiliar. What questions and themes do these works of art raise for you? Reflect on concepts such as agency, code switching, character, style, stereotypes, and authenticity. How can works of art help us understand ourselves and our world more fully?