Carrie Mae Weems is well known for leading art audiences toward a revaluation of history, dismantling its presumptions, particularly with regard to issues of identity, race and gender. In this show, titled "The Hampton Project," she seems to have reached a new level of eloquence and poignancy. The presentation is actually two shows in one. A first-floor room is filled with photos taken around 1900 by photojournalist Frances Benjamin Johnston. These images, which alone make a fascinating exhibition, document the activities of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, which was the first school to offer programs for both African Americans and Native Americans.
Upstairs, Weems filled one room with five, large-scale, tinted photo blowups of certain Johnston images, some bearing stenciled texts. They underscore the school's emphasis on assimilation into a European lifestyle and value system that was far removed from the heritage of many of the students. In two side rooms, large panels of sheer, photosensitive material suspended from the ceiling are based on Johnston photos as well as other images related to events in African American and Native American history.
Also filling these rooms are clearly spoken, but not overbearing, audio-narrative tracks in which the artist reads passages from, among other things, the history of the Hampton School's founder, Samuel Chapman Armstrong. Moving among the gently flowing panels, one is enveloped by a haunting sense of the passage of time and the complex shifts in the meanings of images, texts and oral traditions from which history evolves. In this way, Weems' soft-spoken, translucent layering seems to constitute a metaphor for history itself.
"Carrie Mae Weems: The Hampton Project," Jan. 27-Apr. 1, 2001, at the International Center for Photography, 1130 Fifth Ave. at 94th Street, New York, N.Y. 10128.