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Expressing the Individual

Three young Black girls lie on the grass in this closely cropped, sepia-toned, circular photograph so their faces roughly line up near the center. At the bottom of the composition, one girl lies on her back and looks up into the sky. Her head, torso, and right arm are visible. She wears a floral-patterned dress and holds her right hand up to the top of her head. The second girl reclines on her right side behind the first, so she is angled to our left. She props her head in her right hand and looks steadily at us. Her face hovers at the center of the composition. She wears a white t-shirt and a garland encircles her head. The third girl, at the top of the composition, seems to prop her body up on her left elbow. She wears a floral dress and looks down and to our right. Grass and paving rocks fill the space behind her.

Carrie Mae Weems, May Flowers, 2002, printed 2013, chromogenic print, 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?