Women photographers Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson exhibition in group show at the Guggenheim, New York City
Without absolving museums and cultural institutions of their role in shaping mainstream narratives, the Guggenheim’s newest exhibition, Off the Record, takes a critical look at how records can confirm, contest, or hide the truth. The works of the twelve featured artists, including two Contemporary Heroines, are in direct conversation with records; they re-appropriate, challenge, and offer new perspectives to mainstream narratives.
A nod to journalistic jargon, ‘off the record’ refers to the stories and histories which are left out of mainstream coverage. The Guggenheim’s associate curator of contemporary art, Ashley James, explains that the initial inspiration for the exhibition was Sadie Barnette’s series My Father’s FBI File; Government Employees Installation (2017). Through manipulating and spray-painting the 500-page government file, Sadie actively reclaimed her father’s past. Ashley James further explains that her work is emblematic of the “ways that documents, even as they are kind of ubiquitous and things that we encounter in our everyday lives, hold so much power.”
The exhibition features images from Contemporary Heroine Carrie Mae Weems’ series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995-1996). Carrie used daguerreotypes from the 1850s which were commissioned to serve as ‘evidence’ for racial inferiority and justification for slavery. She then re-photographed the images, layering them with text and coloured filters. The series demonstrates clearly how archival records – intended for racist and dehumanising purposes – can be reclaimed and used to call out racist histories. Carrie powerfully captures the more overtly violent purpose of documentation, contrasted with the perhaps more covert destructive power of bureaucracy.
“We’re looking at the ways in which Anglo America—white America—saw itself in relationship to the black subject. I wanted to intervene in that by giving a voice to a subject that historically has had no voice.”
Lorna Simpson, another American Heroine featured in the exhibition, explores the interplay between memory, history, and identity. Flipside (1991) looks at the subject of Black hairstyles and their significance in Black identity and racial discrimination. The black-and-white image of the back of a Black woman’s head and an African mask captioned with the text “the neighbours were suspicious of her hairstyle” alludes to the continued politicisation of Black hair, a subject which Lorna has explored throughout her career. Lorna’s work highlights the juxtaposition between the significance of Black identity in culture and the persistent ‘othering’ of Black people.
Every aspect of the exhibition has been meticulously considered — from the use of the font Helvetica due to its prevalence in records, to the yellow hue of the gallery walls, reminiscent of Manila envelopes. The Guggenheim’s Director of Graphic Design, Jiminie Ha, wanted to highlight how “the exhibit is, itself, a document of sorts”, and for the exhibit to embody the show’s themes. Off the Record offers a novel perspective on documentation through introspective and thoughtful consideration of how the museum itself is engaged in record keeping.
Off The Record
April 2 – September 27, 2021