Lately, Carrie Mae Weems’ Untitled (Listening Devices), a photogravure I acquired for the museum in 2015, has been rolling through my mind. It consists of a grid of images of devices that are posed as if having their portraits taken. The image at lower right is a simple megaphone, while next to it is the classic two cans connected by a string. Other squares are occupied by old fashioned telephones. Missing, of course, are references to smart phones of any kind. Might this be a nod to a simpler time? Or is it a nod to that old game of Telephone in which a sentence is whispered person to person resulting in a statement that bears no resemblance to the original. Does it point to ideas about failures to communicate? For me, it reflects both a plea for the simple act of listening and of being tired of talking.
Last summer I listened to the podcast from Serial, Nice White Parents, and was mortified to think of my own patterns of behavior, unintentional or not. It was an important eye opener about my own position of privilege. And recently (thanks to Ben Levy for the recommendation), I listened to a talk by Dr. Meranda Roberts, who spoke about the significance of land acknowledgments in colonial spaces like museums. Learning how to de-center oneself is difficult. It all feels overwhelming, but it is crucial.
The reason Weems’ photogravure keeps popping into my brain relates to this distinction noted by Roberts:
• White savior: thinks it’s her job to give black women a voice.
• White ally: knows it’s her responsibility to listen to the black voices that are already speaking.
It’s not up to others to educate us, but it is on us to actively listen when they speak. It is we who need to do our own work.
When I pitched this photogravure to my colleagues, I think they thought it wasn’t as representative of Weems’ work as they might want. But I persisted in my conviction that its universal message of listening with intention was equally powerful. I don’t think the museum has had a chance to exhibit the work yet—although I don’t know since I have only returned to the building once since I left.
There is so much learning and unlearning that must be done personally and collectively in the art world and museums regarding racism, sexism, pay equity, decolonization, land acknowledgements, and so many other things. And I need to start with me and recognize that it is not about me at all.
Carrie Mae Weems (American, born 1953)
Untitled (Listening Devices), 2014
Printer/Publisher: Segura Arts Studio
Sheet: 1308 x 1079 mm. (51 1/2 x 42 1/2 in.)
Baltimore Museum of Art: Print, Drawing & Photograph Society Fund, with proceeds derived from the 2015 Contemporary Print Fair, 2015.161
Ann's art blog
A small corner of the interwebs to share thoughts on objects I acquired for the Baltimore Museum of Art's collection, research I've done on Stanley William Hayter and Atelier 17, experiments in intaglio printmaking, and the Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair.