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'Witness': Lives of Blacks Considered : Art review: Photos of African Americans from 1840s to 1860s present an inescapable look at slavery, while an accompanying show helps put it into perspective.

March 04, 1995|SUSAN KANDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Slaves of Thomas F. Drayton," a photograph taken in South Carolina one year before the Emancipation Proclamation, depicts a large group of slaves about to be freed as part of Lincoln's war strategy. Gathered in front of their spartan quarters, surrounded by their possessions and guarded by a Union soldier who is visibly anxious to keep his distance, these displaced, unsmiling African Americans stare at the camera, as scornful of their liberators as of their oppressors, but mostly, spiritually and physically exhausted.

This is only one of the remarkable images in "Hidden Witness," an exhibition of rare daguerreotypes, tintypes and ambrotypes depicting African Americans, now at the J. Paul Getty Museum. The photographs--most on loan from the Detroit collection of Jackie Napolean Wilson, the rest taken from the museum's holdings--date from the 1840s to the 1860s. Displayed in a darkened gallery, in the velvet-lined cases that marked them as precious keepsakes, these images of abolitionists, freemen, musicians, soldiers, mothers and children reflect the photograph's irresistible lure and nearly instant ubiquity. Yet the show is not about celebration, neither of the democratic new medium nor of the so-called dawn of liberation. Slavery is its very difficult--and inescapable--subject.

The photograph from which the show derives its title is a daguerreotype of 1855 depicting a white family posed in front of their Greek Revival home. In the background is a black male who appears to be planting a tree. He leans on his shovel, unseen by those who have enslaved him--a portentous figure, emblematic of the malevolent social forces that would help precipitate the Civil War and destroy this particular style of "gracious" living.

As compelling as this photograph is, it illustrates one of the show's double binds. Is it possible neither to reduce the African Americans in these images to mute symbols, nor to romanticize as individuals those who were--even once freed--essentially powerless? The captions accompanying each of the images, penned by guest curator Wilson, illustrate this difficulty. They attempt to particularize the subjects, noting their features, their gestures, their dress; yet they likewise strive after universals. One stunning 1860 image of a woman cradling her baby is referred to as a Madonna with child. What's most interesting about her, however, is the wedding ring she wears. Since marriage was illegal for slaves, this woman is not an abstract ideal, but a real-life rebel or pioneer.

Well aware of the possible sanitizing effect of this kind of historical show, the museum invited artist Carrie Mae Weems to offer a response, forming a second show in an adjacent gallery. And if the photographs in "Hidden Witness" are indeed somewhat quiet, their emotional charge held in check by the subdued lighting, the elegant brochure and other bits of imperturbable, museological paraphernalia, Weems' photo-text pieces are explosive--literally red in the face.

Circumscribing the small room in which they are housed, they are composed of images of African Americans, taken from the exhibition and elsewhere, which the artist has enlarged, altered with toners, and embellished with text whose narrative is quite different from Wilson's official, captioned commentary.

All of Weems' images of slaves are colored an angry, blood red. Weems' work is bracketed by two portraits of African tribeswomen colored a deep blue, their serenity contrasting with the texts the artist has inscribed on them: "From Here I Saw What Happened" reads the first piece in this alternative, narrative cycle. "And I Cried," reads the last.

In the last decade or so, photo-text has emerged as the preeminent medium for politically motivated art. The text facilitates the message, which is perforce didactic; the photo provides the visual element we demand of an art object. In the worst-case scenario, the image is perfunctory, an excuse for the real work that is to be done; in the best case, image is inextricably linked to text by virtue of the meaning the oscillation between them generates. Weems' installation enacts the best-case scenario with textbook clarity.

Her work is indeed didactic; of that, there is no question. It is also harsh, sarcastic and accusatory. This is what traps us; but it is not what moves us. Instead, it is Weems' poetry--the lilting cadence and the staccato bursts of language that animate pictures which, though strange, are familiar in terms of the stereotypes they facilitate. "House Yard Field Kitchen/You Became Mammie Mama Mother and Then, Yes, Confidant--Ha." These words accompany a trio of photographs of female slaves, and reveal those images' devastating truths. Tempering exultation with caution, Weems offers neither an antidote nor a footnote, but, rather, a frame through which to view "Hidden Witness," a complicated and very important show.

* "Hidden Witness: African Americans in Early Photography" and "Carrie Mae Weems Reacts to 'Hidden Witness,' " J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, (310) 458-2003, through June 18. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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