Placing the spotlight on Black women in popular culture, Slow Fade to Black (2010) recasts images of singers and performers captured at the height of their success in the 20th century. Presented at a crossroads in Toronto’s Entertainment District, Carrie Mae Weems’ installation of 13 larger-than-life portraits—bridging several generations—portrays Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Leontyne Price, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, Shirley Bassey, Ella Fitzgerald, Abbey Lincoln, Eartha Kitt, Koko Taylor, and Katherine Dunham. While some of these women retain their iconic status today, others are relatively unknown. Weems contends that their legacies fade as time elapses, yet many of their white, and especially male, counterparts—often performers deeply influenced by groundbreaking Black artists—disproportionately maintain prominence; a circumstance she seeks to illuminate and change.
Weems plays on the theatrical term “fade to black,” denoting the fade into complete darkness of the lighting in a staged scene, or the filmic fade, where an image transitions to or from a “blank” screen. The term also contains a latent reference to Black skin and the problematic history of its depiction, both technically—with photographic materials historically calibrated to white skin—and culturally, with Blackness understood as secondary or invisible within a predominantly white culture. Her “slow fade” also alludes to the cultural devaluation of aging bodies—especially those of women. She visualizes their “fading” by blurring reclaimed publicity photographs, and in some cases by applying a tinted hue—suggestive of the many shades of discrimination based on skin tone. Weems scripts a dual narrative that denounces the systemic erasure of these groundbreaking women and simultaneously proclaims their enduring cultural value.
Coming together at Metro Hall, these consummate entertainers are portrayed in a chorus line of impassioned performative moments amplified by gesture, stance, and gaze. Through image sequencing and juxtaposition, the cinematic effects of focus, angle, and zoom create a rhythmic visual harmony.
An evolving narrative within Weems’ ongoing investigation into the representation of Black women in the annals of culture, Slow Fade to Black counters their slide into obscurity, renouncing history’s deficiencies. In reframing these iconic figures, she foregrounds the corrosive power of both time and cultural hierarchy, but also revives and reinforces their legacies.
Supported by Liza Mauer and Andrew Sheiner, Cindy and Shon Barnett, The Stonefields Foundation, and an anonymous donor.