"School Photos and Their Afterlives": Carrie Mae Weems, "Before and After"

Carrie Mae Weems, "Before and After" from "The Hampton Project," 2000 by HMA






Carrie Mae Weems, born 1953
Before and After from The Hampton Project
Mp3 with voice of the artist
Lent by the artist

This audio file is one part of Carrie Mae Weem's The Hampton Project. It complements two photographs and three scrims that are on display in the Hood Museum of Art as part of the exhibition School Photos and their Afterlives, on view January 8–April 12, 2020.

In The Hampton Project, Carrie Mae Weems engages images made in the late 1890s by noted photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston at the Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia—a boarding school established for the education of African American and, subsequently, Native American children. Intended to depict the "success" of the school's assimilationist project, Johnston's photographs were displayed at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Weems enlarged and printed the original photos, supplementing them with historical images of racist persecution. In this accompanying audio, she comments on the cultural erasures and occlusions at the heart of Hampton's educational mission.

Johnston's images, printed on diaphanous banners, show classroom scenes with black and Native students wearing Anglo-American clothing and hairstyles. Note how static and timeless these tableaux are. In the remarkable "Class in American History," what is the role of the Indian dressed in tribal regalia? of the objects displayed in the glass case?

To illustrate before-and-after photography, Weems enlarged two identically staged images of the same group taken by an unidentified photographer at Hampton in 1878 and approximately a year later. These are the two images printed on canvas and displayed on the wall.

From left to right in the 1878 photo are: seated, unknown, Arihotchkish (Gros Ventre), Frank Pamani (Sioux, Crow Creek), and Ahuka (Arikara); standing, unknown, Tiscaufuh (Arikara), Sayeda (Mandan), Uhahkeumpa (Dakota, Standing Rock), and Ecorrupttaha (Mandan); front, Henry Karunch (Arikara, Sioux).

In what ways does Weems's installation allow us to discover complexity and subversion within the original images that she superimposes and reframes? Does The Hampton Project tell an alternative history?

Written January 17, 2020