Carrie Mae Weems’ photographs in “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried” are photographs of slaves in the American South — 19th century photographs that are in university collections. The original images were taken not as portraits of the two women and two men, but in the style of anthropological study — front view, side view, unclothed. Weems re-photographed them with a red filter, set them in a circular space within their frames, added words etched in the glass across them — “You became a scientific profile” “a negroid type” “an anthropological debate” “and a photographic subject.”
Heart-rending images, they draw viewers face to face with these four people who lived with unthinkable injustice. Weems’ photographs draw us to these individuals and also to the history and culture that produced the original pictures, images that dehumanized these men and women, presenting them as specimens.
“I was trying to heighten a kind of awareness around the way in which these photographs were intended and give the subject another level of humanity and another level of dignity that was originally missing in the photograph,” says Weems in the gallery labels accompanying the artwork.
“From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried” by Carrie Mae Weems is among the powerful artworks in the “Unbroken Current” exhibition at Helen Day Art Center in Stowe. The work by six internationally renowned and emerging artists explores cultural and personal identity, social justice and history. The exhibition is accompanied by a film series, with short films playing continuously in an adjacent gallery.
Helen Day Art Center also presents the first solo exhibition in North America of Greek artist Vasilis Zografos, “Studio of Archeo-Virtual Spiritings.” Zografos, from Thessaloniki, exhibits widely in Europe. In his paintings, restored ancient figures and fragments, sometimes plaster copies of them, seem to float in space against soft blue-grey backgrounds.
The exhibition “Unbroken Current” came about in response to the current political climate and two recent events in Vermont, explained Rachel Moore, HDAC executive director and curator of the show. Last year, during a camp for families with adopted children of color, parents and children were targets of racial slurs, some shouted at them from passing cars. Also in 2018, Kiah Morris of Bennington resigned from the state legislature after multiple racist threats against her and her family.
With “Unbroken Current,” Moore said, the goal is to, “Respond to events that happened and show a collective history that is informative, that shows humanity, and can help people come in and engage with a history they may not be knowledgeable about. What we’re trying to do in the exhibition and with the public programs and film series that goes with it is to create a platform for conversation, an open and safe place where people can have dialogue about what’s in the work.”
The artwork opens the dialogue. Profound and compelling, it draws viewers to the artists’ explorations and reflections on identity, social justice, history. History on different levels carries throughout the show. Its title, “Unbroken Current,” comes from a quote by writer Min Chen about the work of artist Sanford Biggers, whose “The Tyranny of Mirrors,” is here.
Chen wrote, “History is not a thing of the past, but an ongoing, unbroken current.”
Biggers’ media in “The Tyranny of Mirrors” are antique quilts and paint — the quilts recalling their reported use as signposts on the Underground Railroad. Squares of silver paint draw the viewer’s eye into a vortex.
In Rashid Johnson’s “Blood War” and “Street Power,” the artist uses a branding iron on oak flooring, his medium evoking unspeakable cruelty.
Harlan Mack brings personal history in his acrylic and wood “Indentation,” reflecting on his early years and time in study and art at his Oma’s kitchen table. In Mack’s “Revival Lineage,” forged shovel faces connect to labor, and also future generations.
Stepping into the adjacent gallery to Vasilis Zografos “Studio of Archeo-Virtual Spiritings,” brings a different, but complementary, experience and reflection of history and present. The works, painted on paper with the subjects in rectangles of soft color, hang from clips, as though just placed on the wall. There’s a sense that this work just happened — or is still in the process of happening — juxtaposition with the antiquity of the objects.
A fragment of a peplos-clad figure, a goat-shaped vessel, an angular Cycladic statuette are among Zografos’s subjects.
“These refurbished and crafted copies gain, in the painter’s studio, both an added layer of virtuality — as painted reproductions of archival photographs documenting staged archaic facsimile — and a more substantial presence, owing to the trace imprint, patina and dust left on the works’ surface through their repeated use by the artist as source material,” says curator Stephanie Bertrand in the exhibition’s gallery notes.