Safety Curtain 2020/2021

Queen B (Mary J. Blige)

It is luxury, calm and pleasure – Baudelaire’s luxe, calme et volupté – that are dazzling evoked here. We are, after all, at the opera. And yet it quickly becomes evident that Carrie Mae Weems has created a clever ambiguous image, one that on closer inspection reveals everywhere visually semantic disharmony, poetic shifts and seeming dissonances that question our perception.

A baroque panel suggests a Euro-centric history scene, but then a Nigerian sculpture on a classical column is casually presented. And the main figure, in the role of a queen, is black, the gold crown a bun made of blond curls. It is the pop culture idol Mary J. Bilge, the great R&B singer and actor, who wears a sweat suit to accompany her fur and jewellery, a rebellious dress code that the global hip-hop culture from the African American ghettos has implanted in the most far-flung corners of the world. While the large medallions on the wall frame not the portrait of the ruling couple but just their crowns, the updated queen looks in the mirror. I Looked and Looked, but Failed to See What so Terrified You was the title of another work in 2003, in which Carrie Mae Weems herself poses with a mirror.

The huge swan on the right-hand edge of the picture is also puzzling. Is it a real swan or a stuffed bird? Indeed, is life in general frozen in the photograph? Or alternatively, has a static scene been brought to life? In other words, does the photo capture a mise-en-scène, a set scene? Or is it rather a tableau vivant, where a historical model is given contemporary presence by being re-enacted with live figures?

It is both at the same time, an ambiguous image in which props from the past collide with one another softly but also productively and confrontationally. Everything is larger than life, driven by an urge to dream of a life without humiliations, restrictions and repression, to break out of the shadows and away from the conventional codes of history and the attributions that are imposed painfully on black women in particular. It is luxe, calme, et volupté – a sweet and wild force from below that disrupts the aloof smugness of a historicizing atmosphere. 

(Bice Curiger)