News your connection to The Boston Globe

Exhibit revisits old uncomfortable questions

WILLIAMSTOWN -- At the end of the Civil War, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong became convinced that his calling was to help newly freed slaves become "educated and elevated." The progressive son of American missionaries in the Hawaiian islands and a graduate of Williams College, he figured the best way to help was to found Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University ) in Hampton, Va.

Armstrong stands behind his family in a photo that artist Carrie Mae Weems enlarged and printed onto a stretched canvas as part of her current Williams College Museum of Art installation, "The Hampton Project." Across the old image she printed, "With your missionary might/ you extended the hand of grace/ reaching down & snatching me/ up and out of myself."

With these words Weems acknowledges Armstrong's noble aims while indicting him. She flanks the Armstrong portrait with two photos of Native American men. At left, they arrive to begin their studies at Hampton in 1878, wearing traditional dress and long hair. At right, the same guys are photographed two years later, attired in prim suits, with their hair cut short and neatly parted. Is it a sign of progress or a dubious "civilizing"? Too much was lost, Weems's art argues, in their assimilation.

In the late 1980s and early '90s, concerns with personal identity, race, gender, and sexuality (think AIDS) were all the rage in the art world , and a group of black women working this territory, including Weems, Lorna Simpson , and Brookline's Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons , first gained notice. Though these artists continued to produce strong work, the white-hot spotlight of the art world eventually moved elsewhere. But we're in the midst of a reassessment of this socially concerned style now, with retrospectives of Campos-Pons at the Indianapolis Museum of Art , Simpson at New York's Whitney Museum , and Kara Walker at Minneapolis's Walker Art Center . (Walker also has a small show at Andover's Addison Gallery of American Art. ) It seems after 9/11, Iraq, and the drowning of New Orleans, we're ready again to consider old uncomfortable questions about race, gender, and sexuality.

Williams College commissioned Weems in 1996 to create a piece inspired by Armstrong and Hampton, which began educating African-Americans in 1868 and Native Americans a decade later. A particular focus of the project, which debuted in 2000, was a set of photos documenting Hampton that the school commissioned magazine and corporate photographer Frances Benjamin Johnson to shoot in 1899 to promote the institution's accomplishments.

Weems visited Hampton, selecting old photos from the university's archive to scan and print on diaphanous muslin banners that hang from the Williams College gallery ceiling. They are grainy, sepia-toned blow-ups of appropriated class photos showing smartly attired African-American students from 1934, students studying in a library, a freaky Ku Klux Klan parade float celebrating "white supremacy," white missionaries baptizing Native Americans in a pond, blacks sprayed by police with fire hoses to break up a '60s civil rights demonstration.

There are stark comparisons: One banner depicting a poor elderly black couple eating a meal in their humble shack is next to a banner showing the members of a comfortable middle-class black family gathered for a meal in their stiff finery. The debasement of Native American traditions is evidenced by an Edward Curtis photo of a masked Navajo man hung next to an image of a group of children sporting hand-made "Indian" paper masks, apparently the result of some Boys & Girls Club craft project.

To see all the images, viewers must wander between the banners, getting caught in the middle of things -- literally and metaphorically. The banners are sheer, revealing and overlapping the images hung behind. The result is a blending of history and a suggestion of the simultaneity of memories.

"At Hampton you arrived/ as prisoners of war and freed-slaves/ displaced and dislocated," Weems's piped-in, disembodied voice says. "Leaving blankets and chains at the door/ you checked in one way/ and came out another/ but your Missionary instruction/ would not be/ to Conserve a Legacy."

The voice gives a poetic accounting of the history of blacks and Native Americans in the United States -- as Weems tells it, a legacy of oppression, deleted traditions, dashed hopes. Weems says in the catalog, "Education is always about maintaining the status quo. It is based on conformity. And that becomes most obvious when we look at questions of education regarding people of color." Her charge has merit, but her focus on critique drowns out the benefits of education in general and, in particular, at Hampton, whose alumni include Booker T. Washington.

Weems's photographic and textual juxtapositions are often blunt, sometimes a bit obvious, but her smooth, alluring spoken voice is haunting. It is a spirit seeking justice -- not an avenging spirit, but a spirit calmly, righteously asserting the historical truth.