Potthast, Louisa (2021). You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down: The Representation of Black Womanhood in the Photography of Carrie Mae Weems. Masters thesis, Universität zu Köln.

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“You Can’t Keep a Black Woman Down” is a collection of short stories by Alice Walker from 1971, tackling issues Black women face every day in a sexist and racist society. They are stories about oppression, fear and anger; yet Walker ends them on a hopeful note, providing points of departure for a Black female subjectivity. Part of Black women’s oppression stems from the distorted representations across all media – art, film, literature. Alice Walker is among a generation of Black feminists that set out to create corrective images of Black womanhood in the 1970s. Working in a different medium but with the same intentions, photographer Carrie Mae Weems’s body of work likewise tackles issues of Black women’s oppressions while also offering empowering, counterhegemonic images of Black female resistance. In 1973, Carrie Mae Weems received her first camera as a birthday gift and began photographing herself in order to also create images that work against the hegemonic images of Black people, especially women. Her photographs have since been displayed in museums nationally and internationally, providing counter-images for Black women in the United States, whose images, for centuries, have been created for them, not by them. In the 2018 exhibition “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85” in Buffalo, New York (originally from the Brooklyn Museum), I first encountered the works of Carrie Mae Weems. Her photographs subvert the stereotypical depictions of Black women in media and depict the Black woman, Weems herself, as the complex subject of her works. Instead of falling into the trappings of the “positive” stereotype depictions of the “strong Black woman”, Weems’s works display vulnerable women with complex sets of emotions that encapsulate Black womanhood while at the same time, presenting experiences universal to all women. In an interview, Weems said that there is “still sort of a dearth, a lack of representational images of women. And not, you know, like strong, powerful, and capable, that kind of bullshit, but rather just images of black women in the world, in the domain of popular culture” (Weems quoted in Solway 2017). After having seen her works at the exhibit in Buffalo and surprised by the lack of literature about Carrie Mae Weems at the University of Cologne, I chose her works out of interest, while also investigating my own place as a white woman and feminist and the complicated, racist history of feminism. In the following, I will discuss two series by Weems: The Kitchen Table Series from 1990 and Not Manet’s Type from 1997. In the first series, Not Manet’s Type, Weems is referencing (feminist) art history, modernism and Western beauty ideologies. The Kitchen Table Series is concerned with gaze theory, the medium of photography and the blues. On a macro-level, both series are about the harmful controlling images created by mainstream culture as well as the artistic reactions by Black women in the mediums of photography, film, music and literature. At a closer look, each series tackles a specific medium and time in history which will be considered in my analysis. In her works, Weems is criticizing the stereotyping of Black women while also creating new representations for Black womanhood, referencing Black women’s techniques of resistance. I will thus read her photographs a) “against the grain” of racist and sexist representations of Black women and b) read her work as a site of Black feminist thought and compare her photographic series to the works of other Black feminist artists.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters thesis)
CreatorsEmailORCIDORCID Put Code
Potthast, Louisalouisapotthast@web.deUNSPECIFIEDUNSPECIFIED
URN: urn:nbn:de:hbz:38-531676
Date: 31 March 2021
Place of Publication: Köln
Language: English
Faculty: Faculty of Arts and Humanities
Divisions: Faculty of Arts and Humanities > Fächergruppe 6: Geschichte > Abteilung für Nordamerikanische Geschichte
Subjects: Philosophy
The arts
Photography and photographs
Public performances
Geography and history
Uncontrolled Keywords:
Black FeminismEnglish
Carrie Mae WeemsEnglish
Art HistoryEnglish
bell hooksEnglish
Gender StudiesEnglish
Black Feminist CinemaEnglish
Faith RinggoldEnglish
Julie DashEnglish
Modern ArtEnglish
Contemporary PhotographyEnglish
Black women artistsEnglish
Black womanhoodEnglish
Black Arts MovementEnglish
Feminist Art MovementEnglish
Linda NochlinEnglish
Alice WalkerEnglish
The Kitchen Table SeriesEnglish
Date of oral exam: 24 September 2020
NameAcademic Title
Ortlepp, AnkeProf. Dr.
Refereed: Yes
URI: http://kups.ub.uni-koeln.de/id/eprint/53167


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