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Carrie Mae Weems: the acclaimed US artist recontextualising Black American narratives
By Finn Blythe | Art | 7 July 2021
This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Wednesday Art Idol

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Since emerging in the early 1980s, Carrie Mae Weems has established herself as one of America’s most important contemporary artists, working across photography, film, spoken word and woven fabric. At the heart of her practice is an effort to make the invisible visible, to afford space and attention to Black subjects that have been disproportionately omitted from the art historical record. Like her friend and former teacher Dawoud Bey, Weems is primarily concerned with inserting Black bodies into the spaces they’ve been excluded and emphasising their presence where they are merely peripheral. 

Born in Portland, Oregon, Weems began life as a dancer, moving to San Francisco at the age of 17 to study modern dance with legendary US choreographer Anna Halprin alongside the likes of John Cage and Robert Morris, both of whom would go on to become giants in their respective fields of contemporary art and dance. After being gifted her first camera in her twenties, Weems moved to New York in the mid-70s where she began taking lessons in photography at the Studio Museum Harlem where she was taught by Dawoud Bey. Despite beginning with documentary-style images, particularly in her early series Family Pictures and Stories, Weems soon shifted towards creating images that appeared as documents but were in fact staged compositions that incorporated text, spoken word and multiple images to construct richly layered narratives on the Black experience within America. 

In 1990, Weems employed this multidisciplinary approach to create The Kitchen Table series, a work that interrogated issues around family, gender and power structures and remains one of her most seminal contributions. In these black and white staged compositions, which see the artist place herself in various positions around her kitchen table that is lit by a single overhead light, multiple narratives unfold to reveal a wider, collective experience. At times she’s pictured alone and others surrounded by family, oscillating between archetype roles of mother, friend, partner and lover.

Carrie Mae Weems, The Kitchen Table series, 1990

The Louisiana Project, 2003

In 2003, Weems was commissioned by the Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University in New Orleans to create a work in response to the 200 years since Louisiana was purchased by the US government from France. It’s scarcely believable now, but prior to 1803 the state and large swathes of the country extending into the north-west was under French control, and it required $15 million (just under $3 billion in today’s money) to buy it back. 

Weems’ response to the bicentennial was typically multidisciplinary, incorporating more than 70 photographs and screen prints in addition to a video and a live performance that investigated the legacy of colonial occupation. Like The Kitchen Table series, Weems chose to explore the historical nuances of the region by placing herself within her photographs, often with her back turned to the camera and dressed in period clothing worn by working-class women at the time. Adding to the connections shared with her previous work is an interrogation of power structures, most notably surrounding the annual Mardi Gras celebrations, and the accompanying Rex Ball, an exclusive event attended by masked members of New Orleans’ upper-class. By turning her back to the camera, Weems forces the viewer to see through her and reconsider the antebellum architecture as spectral witnesses to the region’s violent past.

Carrie Mae Weems, A Distant View, from The Louisiana Project, 2003. Gelatin silver print, 20 x 20 in. © Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

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