TM_pageTopDivider.gif

Folklore and the Signifying Monkey

Carrie Mae Weems’ Sea Islands Series was conceived when the artist was pursuing a master’s degree in Folklore and Photography at the University of California Berkeley. Inspired by authors like Zora Neale Hurston and photographers like Roy DeCarava, Weems began to take interest in the small, isolated Gullah community on the other side of the country. The deep connection to folklore and superstition was heavily prevalent in the Gullah lifestyle, with its strong ties to its African roots. Traditions such as adhering newspaper to the walls, creating indigo bottle trees in the yard, and sprinkling salt in the corner were all practices said to either trap or ward off evil spirits. Gullah traditions for health, happiness, wealth, safety, and death are all explored in Weems’ series.

Recognizing and understanding the specific folkloric connections in Weems’ series allows a fuller appreciation of the depths and complexities of African American history and culture. Weems’ own fascination with folklore began as she was examining the ways her family passed on its history and rituals while working on her Family Pictures and Stories project from 1984. After completing this series, she began the graduate program in Folklore at the University of California at Berkeley. Weems considered folklore as an academic area that offered a more direct and authentic contact on a culture as opposed to the theorized interpretations offered in textbooks by historians. Her professor, folklorist Alan Dundes, encouraged her to use her visual and verbal material (and traditions) together in her folkloric studies—and since, she has persisted with the combination of photography and text in her artistic practice.

Through several trips to the area and reading many published collections of Gullah folklore, Weems “went looking for Africa and found Africa here in the proverbs of the McIntosh, In the voices of Sapelo, In the songs of St. Simons, Along the Highways of Jekyll, In the gardens of Johns, In the grave-yards of Hilton Head.” She created a sensitive portrait of place in her Sea Islands Series. By representing particularly unique African American cultural details, especially those with direct links to Africa, that demonstrate a developed, persistent, and rich heritage, Weems continued to challenge a historic tradition of cultural imperialism.

Music and storytelling were retained among the Gullah populations because they helped express feelings of joy or grief, allowed heartwarming memories of their homeland, promoted physical or spiritual well-being, provided escape and comic relief from the drudgery of daily life, molded the young, and fostered community. And these forms of expression operated as a universal language among people enslaved from various societies.

Gifted raconteurs or storytellers played an important role in both African and enslaved life. Folklore allowed for an instilment of community morals, and for slaves, it provided a kind of coded language with which to communicate with each other under the master’s watchful eye. This kind of African American folklore employed the tactic of signifying—a way of speech that relies on metaphor and simile that creates a layered and nuanced meaning. The Signifying Monkey, a character that is often found in African folklore (and in Weems’ work titled The Signifying Monkey, 1992), represents a type of trickster who cajoles others into believing his lies. He attempts to trick others, such as the Lion and the Elephant, but he is often discovered to his own dismay and punishment. The trickster had historically been a caricatured stereotype of African Americans, a concept that Weems knows well and is appropriating in this series.

In utilizing folklore and the idea of the Signifying Monkey, Weems is creating a kind of creative remembrance of the Gullah people for her audience by restoring a subjugated knowledge. “My interest,” she wrote in 2000, “lies in moving folks from the margins to the center by employing various representational strategies that allow representations of people of color to stand for the human multitudes, more than as degraded symbols for blackness.”