So long as it is I who paints my own portrait, nothing daunts me. —Simone de Beauvoir, The Force of Circumstance: The Autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir, 1963
Through selection and cropping, the photographer creates, as the writer Susan Sontag noted in her seminal 1977 book On Photography, a new relationship between image and reality. “The earliest experience of art,” she wrote in an earlier essay, “Against Interpretation,” “must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual.” In the seemingly banal rituals of Carrie Mae Weems’s vernacular photography, one experiences the soft positioning and glower and glare of the subject, whether belonging to past, present, or dystopian future. One sees the female figure, head tilted up, smoke curling from a lit cigarette held between supple fingers. Or that figure appears engaged in the ritual of breathing, of walking, of admiring a reflection of herself. The ordinary existence of an African American female body becomes the framework for circular structure and translation, creating functional beauty from the scraps of everyday life. Who is she gazing at and do we know which “self” is reflected in her mirror? Is she an “ordinary brown braided woman” ready to begin herself? Or is she Correggio’s Jupiter, cloaked in a dark-grey cumulus cloud, walking among the ruins of ancient aqueducts through monumental arches, moving pointedly toward a lectisternium, growing from a humilis cloud form to towering congestus?
In Weems’s work, the dream is the image. The substance of the dream is the character placed within and drawn out of its context: surrealism as mundane practice intersecting boundaries of the commonplace and ancient landscapes. Nothing is ordinary about the image, and nothing can be assumed. The photographs are antirealist, nonlinear, and phantasmagoric as the historic black female body bearing the consequences of being, recognizing herself continuously and bearing the weight of being unrecognizable. The image is the handiwork of a consecrated dream unveiled as female insurrection or independence, both apart from and within the company of other bodies—be the other bodies a suggested representation of maleness, an invisibility of whiteness, or the reflective presence of a prepubescent African American female body.
The writer Simone de Beauvoir, in speaking about the “womanly state” of her work as an existential philosopher, political activist, and social theorist, proclaimed that she wanted to realize herself, noting in her autobiography that she wanted to have her contemporaries “hear and understand me . . . myself in relation to life, to death, to my times, to writing, to love, to friendship, to travel.” This is not the self of autobiography restricted to the complexity of original occurrence, but the self as protagonist of a background, tragic or serene, against which her experiences are drawn, giving them meaning, constituting their unity. Similarly, playwright Adrienne Kennedy, drawing images from dreams and memories, asserted in her 1964 play Funnyhouse of a Negro, “It is my vile dream to live in rooms with European antiques and my statue of Queen Victoria, photographs of Roman ruins, walls of books, a piano and oriental carpets and to eat my meals on a white glass table . . . at the same time appropriating figures from a mythical and historical past.” Both writers pronounced themselves in a passionate exploration of the recesses of the American conscience, psychologizing the act of dreaming the female body into existence, in much the same way that Sontag’s anti-novel, The Benefactor, introduces us to Hippolyte, who has dreamed his way through an ambiguous life with the primary purpose of solitary speculation. Hippolyte lives only on the periphery of other lives, making the great decision to use his life to interpret his dreams as opposed to using his dreams to interpret his life, thus fancying himself self-invented within a fresh dream instead of the exhaustive repetitions of the old ones.
As Descartes asserted in Meditations on First Philosophy, everything we currently believe to be true could be false and generated by a dream. That process is the work of the marginalized body, and the lens through which we must view the images of Carrie Mae Weems.