From October 6, 2022, to January 15, 2023, Fundación MAPFRE’s KBr Photography Center in Barcelona will be hosting an exhibition on the multidisciplinary artist Carrie Mae Weems (Oregon, 1953), known above all for the photographic work she produced for nearly forty years. This exhibition chronologically reviews all her work and aims to highlight the way in which Weems approaches photography as a woman ahead of her time, who always projects her images into the future with a tireless sense of hope.
TEXT: FUNDACIÓN MAPFRE CULTURE AREA
IMAGES: © CARRIE MAE WEEMS, COURTESY JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK
AND GALERIE BARBARA THUMM, BERLIN
Since she began her career in the early 1980s, Carrie Mae Weems (Oregon, 1953) has dedicated her work to reformulating the identity of the African-American community and of women, as well as to exploring the mechanisms behind power, who wields it and over whom it is exercised. Her works, which are based around photography, but which go beyond the limits of the medium and range from performance to video and installations, as well as other disciplines, are marked by a sense of struggle against injustice and violence but in the hope of making the world a better place.
Since her first series Family Pictures & Stories (1978-1984), Weems has been challenging history and questioning the visibility or invisibility of those who have contributed to its construction by trying to subvert, reconfigure and influence the prevailing discourse. In this sense, she has used racial, sexual and political stereotypes to express a profound critique of the system and of art itself. Weems’ work transcends the personal and reflects on a complex past that is projected with hope into the future, connecting different generations. In many of her works the artist presents herself as a new narrator of history, sometimes literally, as she shoots herself in the scenes, with her back turned, as an anonymous character, a woman, a black body that is both present and absent in a performative attitude that she has adopted throughout her professional life, ever since she studied dance at the beginning of her career.
The exhibition Carrie Mae Weems Un gran giro de lo posible [A Grand Tour of the Possible], organized by Fundación MAPFRE in collaboration with Foto Colectania and the Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, takes a chronological and thematic tour through her series, some of which will be on display at the Foto Colectania site, including Kitchen Table (1990), and A 22 Million very Tired and Very Angry People (1991). In addition, on this occasion, MACBA (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona) will host the installation Lincoln, Lonnie and me (2012), to coincide with the exhibition.
Family Pictures and Stories (1978-1984), Ain’t Jokin’ (1987-1988), American Icons (1988-1989)
Developed between 1978-1984, Family Pictures and Stories comprised Carrie Mae Weems’s graduate project in 1984. It consists of a dozen photographs of her family and the individuals who surrounded the artist in her daily life. Through these images Weems attempts to offer a new take on everyday life, on identity, both her own and that of the African American community. This intent is continued in Ain’t Jokin’ (1987-1988) and American Icons (1988-1989). If in the former the author makes use of the jokes, mockery and usually derogatory comments to which people of color are frequently subjected, imbuing them with sarcasm and presenting them as a criticism to offer a common reality; in the latter she chooses objects such as salt shakers, pepper shakers and ice buckets in the shape of individuals of color in the service sector, hugely successful in the United States, to talk about prejudice.
Colored People (1989-1990/2019), From Here I Saw What Happenned And I Cried (1995-1996)
One of Carrie Mae Weems’ most iconic works, Colored People, is presented in its 2019 version. It is composed of photographs of African-American young people and children —the hope for the future— that the artist has subsequently dyed yellow, blue, and magenta. The results are beautiful images, but with a complex meaning. The dyes allude to the various shades of “black” and call attention to the hierarchical racism surrounding these issues, according to which a person of color is “better” according to the lightness of their skin. But without doubt, her in-depth investigation of racism reaches its zenith in the series From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried (1995-1996). This work, key in the exhibition discourse and presented for the second time in Europe, deals with stereotypes and reflects on the use of the body of black people since ancient times, for scientific and anthropological purposes, where they have ceased to be bodies and instead become objects. With this underlying theme, Weems takes a look at some of the most iconic figures in the black community who have fought for freedom and black identity. There are thirty-three images drawn primarily from an archive of 1850s daguerreotypes of African slaves in South Carolina. These portraits were commissioned by a Harvard scientist to test his theory that black people were an inferior race and the men and women depicted therein, either nude from the waist up or completely naked, were simply specimens. All the images are tinted red and blue and over them the artist has added descriptive phrases such as “Negroid type”, “You are a scientific specimen”, and so on.
The work is both an indictment of photography as an ally of slavery and a tribute to those who lost their lives, their bodies and whose faces and were “containers” of the wrongs committed throughout history against the black community in the name of science.
Not Manet’s Type (2010), Framed By Modernism (1997), Museums (2006)
In these series Weems scrutinizes the history of art itself and its attempt to create universalist models into which we should all fit. In Framed By Modernism, made in collaboration with the painter Robert Colescott, Weems, in the work of art, denounces the fact that art history has never chosen the black woman’s body as a model, in contrast to the white body. Not Manet’s Type invites the viewer to peek into Weems’s own bedroom and voyeuristically contemplate her body in order to denounce with cutting phrases —which she places under the photograph and which refer to great artists such as Picasso, Willem de Kooning or Marcel Duchamp—, how art history, once again, has neglected black creators and specifically women.
This type of indictment is repeated in Museums (2006), this time directed against the cultural institutions themselves. This last series introduces a very palpable sense of anguish into the space: an enigmatic muse, who we assume to be the artist herself, walks through the space dressed in black, always with her back to us. The human figure is dwarfed by the great architecture of the British Museum, the Galleria Nazionale D’Arte Moderna and the Philadelphia Museum, in front of which she walks calmly, perhaps because after a long time she feels welcome in these temples to art.
Slave Coast (1993), Africa Series (1993), Sea Islands (1991-1992), Africa: Gems & Jewels (1993-2009)
These works address architecture as a site of the African diaspora, linked to the traffic of African slaves across the Atlantic Ocean, the legacy of an Africa as a common home. In Slave Coast, Weems portrays the adobe architecture in the surroundings of the Ancient Cities of Djenné, in Mali. These desolate constructions are in dialogue with the “more proximal” images from the series Africa, 1993. With poetic language and devoid of sentimentality, Weems invokes the slave trade in Sea Islands. The artist became interested in the Gullah culture of the islands off Georgia and South Carolina while studying folklore at the University of California. The Gullah are a distinct group of African Americans who have been able to preserve their African cultural heritage and maintain a Creole language similar to that of Sierra Leone. By showcasing this kind of detail Weems reveals a persistent, unknown cultural heritage that seems removed from what we have already referred to as “the prevailing discourse”. Almost fifty years later Weems tackles Africa: Gems & Jewels, where she focused on various characters, mostly young people who today live in those same places.
Constructing History (2008), Heave: A Case Study Room (2022), The Push, The Call, The Scream, The Dream (2020), All The Boys (2016)
Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment (2008) is research that Weems initiated in 2008 with her students at the Savannah College of Art and Design in which they recreated different moments of past political violence. The students “represented” some of the most symbolic assassinations of politicians, like John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Benazir Bhutto. In 2018, as a continuation of that work and in the face of the hostilities that were still happening in the world, specifically in the United States against the black community, Weems continued to address and fight against hate crimes and extremism in Heave: Part I-A Case Study (A Quiet Place) (2018) and Heave: Part II, which she has now recreated for the KBr. In Heave, whose title seems to evoke the cadence of breathing, Weems revisits the incessant systemic and structural violence against black Americans, drawing on references ranging from the Black Panthers to traditional African art, and including works by contemporary artists she admires who have dedicated their praxis to exploring black subjectivity. This “room” is filled with objects belonging to the everyday world of North Americans that denote structural violence. As she herself points out: “I don’t constantly confront the history of violence because I want to, but because I truly feel compelled to. My past, my culture, my issues along with the color of my skin, the way I’ve always been marked over time, somehow forces me to do this.”
All The Boys (2016) repeats the quintessential stereotype of black male youth —a young black man in a hoodie— who appears in a diptych next to a mug shot, almost identical in size to the portrait of the man whose blurred figure has been violently erased by the prejudices accumulated about him. The Push, The Call, The Scream, was originally created in response to the death of U.S. civil rights leader John Lewis. This work focuses primarily on collective moments of protest, mourning, and action. As a way of recontextualizing and following her usual taste for appropriationism, Weems uses historical photographs from 1963 of the march against racial segregation of children in Birmingham, Alabama, and of the funeral of civil rights activist Medgar Evens, killed by The White Citizens’ Council. Some of the photographs, tinted like those in Colored people, but this time in pink and blue, evoke delicacy and care, and trace a line that links the past to the present so that the viewer can confront the historical moment they are experiencing.
Slow Fade to Black (2009-2010), Blue Notes (2014-1015)
n Slow Fade to Black, Weems presents a series of 20th century African-American politicians and artists, public figures, jazz singers, writers and dancers like Josephine Baker. Once Weems has photographed the original, she alters them, and in this case blurs them, to draw attention to the disappearance of the memories of these individuals in the collective memory. This working method is also used in Blue Notes, where she continues the work initiated with Colored People and All the Boys.
In a desire to keep working on identity, Blue Notes also shows us different individuals of color from popular culture, such as the painter Jean Michel-Basquiat, in this case with his face crossed out by solid blocks of color. Carrie’s “vandalism” of her own work allows the viewer to reflect on the scarce presence of black artists in American history, while at the same time criticizing it.
Dressed in a long black dress that we identify as the previously mentioned artist’s muse, in Roaming, Weems reflects on the human experience. This work, created during her stay at the American academy in Rome, uses her own body to lead the viewer into the space and encourage them to join in this contemplative pilgrimage through some of the most emblematic places in the Italian capital. Regarding the figure of the muse, Weems declared: “This woman can stand for me and for you; she leads you into history. She is a witness and a guide.” These photographs, in which the author presents herself in front of some of the landmark monuments from our history, evoke a strong sense of the passage of time, as well as the insignificance of the human being in front of the grandiose edifices that surround her. Weems’ interest in how civil and ecclesiastical architecture, almost spectral buildings, can control individuals, is very evident here.