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Color as a social statement - Carrie Mae Weems

Continuing on with the discussion on "Color and emotion", I can't think of a better example of how color, subject and message integrate seamlessly than with the works of Carrie Mae Weems.

Carrie Mae Weems is an contemporary American artist who works in a variety of mediums but is best known for her photography work. Her work centers around the socio-political world of African-Americans and how society perceives them, though lately it has evolved to encompass more of the human condition than race.

One particular set of works that caught my attention were a series of portraits collectively called Colored People (1989-1990). In this series of portraits Mrs. Weems plays on the labels associated with a class of people in a straightforward, unabashed and reflective manner.

These three examples above contain a portrait of a young person of color. Each image is toned and presented to the viewer with a label. The three images are to be viewed simultaneously as a whole and individually. After a brief analysis of each piece you can clearly see how each label represents a specific aspect of the print. For example; Magenta Colored Girl indicates the color used in the tint of the duo-tone, a reflection of her race and one for her gender. Each one individually holds up as a true statement, likewise as a sentence. The other, less obvious part is that the act of labeling each image reflects society's use of labels to identify and isolate groups of people.

In each of these images you can see that the photos themselves are not technically or even artistically great. If anything they are rather straightforward snapshots with no outstanding qualities in and of themselves. That is a marvelous decision as the piece becomes more about the message and less about the images, or does it? We can relate to the snapshot. We have been the subject of many snapshots and we are authors of many more. By using a snapshot to help deliver the message the art becomes personally relatable regardless of the subject. The subject, in a way, is symbolically us. If it's not us then it's someone we personally know.

The strength of these pieces are in how these snapshots are used in context with color and labels. The piece is so succinctly crafted that removing just a single element and the piece falls apart. Remove the tint and the labels don't make sense. Remove the labels and the images don't make sense.

As this series has evolved they have become more simplified, as in the example at left. Here the three images and labels have been combined into one without loosing meaning. Some may argue that the impact of the piece suffers from the simplification but that is for another discussion. Currently Mrs. Weems has simplified it even more by combining all the images from this collection into a single display with additional colored squares and no labels. My feeling is that unless someone is familiar with the history of this project, the meaning is lost without the labels.

Part of being a great artist isn't in knowing what to say but how to say it. You can see by Mrs. Weems' work how color is tied to labels which are themselves tied to strong emotions.

Let me know your thoughts about this artist's series of images, the use of colors in photography or about socially reflective art in general. Feel free to leave your comments below.


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