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A world apart 

Carrie Mae Weems finds common ground in Cuba and Louisiana

Crumbling old buildings: Check. Tropical heat: Check. A history of intolerance for homosexuals and artists: Check.

But beyond those shared tendencies, the conjoined Carrie Mae Weems exhibitions The Louisiana Project and Dreaming in Cuba at the Spelman Museum may leave viewers initially wondering just what Castro's Cuba and steamy New Orleans have in common.

Quite a bit it turns out. Spelman curator Andrea Barnwell has managed to tease out some interesting connections between these two photo-based projects created by the influential African-American artist.

For one thing, both places are islands -- one literal, the other figurative. Cuba is cut off from the world by an ocean and politics. And New Orleans is a city of such arcane rituals and traditions, it can also seem like a world apart. Society may have its feet on the soil of the 21st century, but not much has changed. Its imagination still clings to a frighteningly outmoded self-perception of a time when select white families could own not just land and status, but actual human beings.

Weems' images are documents of her travels to Cuba and Louisiana. Once in the country, she researches local history and then photographs herself wandering the sites where Cuba's communist revolution unfurled or the airy rooms of the Louisiana mansions that stand as symbols of the Southern slave economy. Weems creates an impression of both Cuba and Louisiana as haunted places permanently scarred by the social upheaval that occurred there.

But making those connections takes time and a willingness to look beyond some of Weems' missteps.

There is something off-putting, for example, of Weems' penchant for theatrical and at times histrionic techniques that bog the work down in the conventions of "identity politics" from the art world's recent past.

Take for example, a series of four black-and-white photographs in the entrance to the exhibition. In each photograph, light-skinned women and a man gaze at themselves in a looking glass held up to them by Weems (who often places herself in her images as her own alter ego and muse). It's a stilted pantomime for "take a long hard look in the mirror," but it's unnecessary when the rest of the exhibition conveys a need to address the past (and self) in far more implicit, thoughtful ways.

Things improve as one walks deeper into The Louisiana Project. The exhibition is a quietly vicious shakedown of the pretensions of refinement and history that the white South clings to as its birthright, even as they condemn African-Americans for dwelling upon that little ol' matter of leg irons, forced labor and systemic rape.

The longer one spends absorbing the imagery and the ideas in the show, the more gravity they accumulate.

In photographs of herself seated on the grounds of a Louisiana plantation or surveying a modern-day New Orleans housing project, Weems makes it clear that the contemporary South is haunted by its racially and economically divided past. The very architecture of the buildings confirms it: On one side of town, a majestic Greek Revival mansion symbolizes individual power. Across the metaphorical railroad tracks, Weems appraises nondescript brick apartment buildings and factories that symbolize legions of similarly faceless, powerless African-Americans.

Supplementing Weems' photographs of herself wandering through those empty Southern landscapes are a series of large laser prints on canvas featuring stylized dramas of the Southern upper crust.

The tableaux of the refined-and-kinky rituals of 19th-century Southern life are created in shadow puppet form. Using the same kind of silhouetted figures employed by Kara Walker, Weems creates a similar effect in which these lyrical, delicate forms become disarmingly sinister.

The scenes range from women in elaborate gowns appraising themselves in handheld mirrors to creepier scenes of a woman brandishing a riding crop and playing erotic games with an elegantly dressed man. Like the masked orgy in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, Weems uses the idea of hidden or masked people to picture a decadent society inaccessible to the common folk.

Weems is most on target when she's treating the close-to-the-bone history of racism, sexual exploitation and slavery in the American South. Her creepy shadow puppets show she is more aesthetically inspired by the South's hypocritical marriage of crimes against humanity and affected good manners.

Perhaps because its landscape and people are less familiar to us, Dreaming in Cuba is not quite as gratifying.

Dreaming in Cuba seems another instance of Weems becoming so invested in making poetic, complicated work about race and class and history that she sacrifices clarity for drama. The artist places herself in the frame again, standing on a hill and gazing out on a vast Cuban vista or sitting with two women in what appears to be an enormous classroom.

Though something in Dreaming in Cuba feels lost in translation, there is a consistency between how Weems views herself in these two provocative bodies of work.

Like the ethereal presence of Weems drifting through her photographs, we can spiritually occupy the past and consider how it impacts our behavior in the present. Or we can surrender to the make-believe of those shadow puppets and imagine it was all just a terrible dream.

Felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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