Carrie Mae Weems
American Photographer and Installation Artist
Summary of Carrie Mae Weems
Decades before the #BlackLivesMatter movement stamped itself into our collective psyche, Carrie Mae Weems was living its message by example through provocative artwork about racial representation. Raised in a progressive Black family that bashed stereotypes, and compelled to reframe perspectives surrounding the Black experience, Weems directs focus toward the status and place of those from her race. As much of her work is autobiographical, she represents an authentic African American voice, reflecting on her own experience and interiority while also participating in a larger cultural conversation. Through a multitude of media including installation, photography, and performance, she questions the limits and chokeholds of history and tradition and forces deeper illumination into the authentic Black experience all the while asking us to consider new models to live by.
- Much of Weem's work revolves around reimagining. By recreating notable scenes of violence in new contexts, placing herself as a Black woman into classically White stories or situations, or reinventing stale narratives, she disarms their power and validity while proposing the possibility that the world might be transformed one day.
- By presenting historical events that have been instilled within our collectiveconsciousness, such as the assassination of Martin Luther King, within the intimate confines of Black experience, non-black viewers are invited to participate with fresh eyes instead of standing once-removed - the overall result lending to a superseding of race identification and the provocation of empathy.
- Weems' multicultural heritage instilled in her a deep drive toward activism for people in the country who suffer such as women and other racial minorities. Much of her work reflects this in that it may not only be read as portraying Black people, but the universally marginalized.
The Life of Carrie Mae Weems
Through compelling art and photography, Carrie Mae Weems draws on her experiences of growing up in a strong Black American family, of becoming a mother at a young age, of studying dance, folklore, and art, and of participating in the labor movement and social activism. Says Weems, "Despite the variety of my explorations, throughout it all it has been my contention that my responsibility as an artist is to work, to sing for my supper, to make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals; to beautify the mess of a messy world, to heal the sick and feed the helpless; to shout bravely from the rooftops and storm barricaded doors and voice the specifics of our historic moment."
Progression of Art
This image comes from Weems' early series Family Pictures and Stories (1983), which is comprised of all black and white photographs of her own family. In Family Reunion, over fifty members (men, women, and children) gather closely together in a park. One man stands front and center, back to the viewer with his arms raised in the air as if he is trying to coordinate a group photo. Other works in the series show couples embracing, mothers and fathers holding their children, and individuals at work and having fun.
As art critic Megan O'Grady explains, "Inspired by Zora Neale Hurston's writing and Roy DeCarava's depictions of Harlem in his book with Langston Hughes, The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), the black-and-white images revealed a loving, fractious, deeply connected clan and were a glorious rebuttal to the infamous 1965 Moynihan Report's assertion that African-American communities were troubled because of weak family bonds." O'Grady was referencing senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's presumption that African-Americans experienced difficulties because their families are matriarchal. Weems has explained that she also wanted to represent the migration of Black Americans from the South to the North, using her own family as symbolic stand-ins for the broader Black community.
In a cultural climate where the majority of Black families in America tend to be stereotyped as either struggling, broken, traumatized, enslaved, or striving to conform to the status quo, Weems presents a factual alternative from her own experience, offering an opportunity for all to consider new ways of being - a huge impetus in her work.
Gelatin silver print - Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York
In this black and white photograph, a Black woman stands with her back to the viewer, and her face in profile. She looks slightly away from a mirror held in her hands, a slight hint of defiance on her face. In the mirror, a white woman wearing a white dress and veil holds a sparkly ten-pointed star. The caption below the photograph reads "LOOKING INTO THE MIRROR, THE BLACK WOMAN ASKED, 'MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL, WHO'S THE FINEST OF THEM ALL?' THE MIRROR SAYS, 'SNOW WHITE, YOU BLACK BITCH, AND DON'T YOU FORGET IT!!!'" This work comes from Weems' second photographic series, Ain't Jokin' (1987-88), which focused on racist stereotypes. Other works in the series include images of a Black man holding a watermelon, a Black woman eating fried chicken, and a portrait of a young black boy with the caption "WHEN ASKED WHAT HE WANTS TO BE WHEN HE GROWS UP, THE BLACK BOY SAYS, 'I WANT TO BE A WHITE MAN CAUSE MY MAMA SAY, 'A NIGGER AIN'T SHIT.''"
Mirror, Mirror, like other works in the series, uses humor, irony, and allusion to a popular narrative (the fairytale of Snow White, often recognized as a symbol of "white power"), to raise questions surrounding racism and oppression. Curator Kathryn E. Delmez recognizes Weems' Ain't Jokin' series as the moment when she first began exploring "humor as a socially acceptable way to promote officially unacceptable ideologies." Similarly, writer Susan M. Wood asserts that "Through the repetition and reappropriation of certain tools of social power the artist exposes their oppressive histories and disrupts their continued power." Moreover, as Wood writes, "Weems acknowledges the way in which photography has been used as an anthropological tool in demonstrating the alleged inferiority of African Americans. The presence of the black woman in Mirror, Mirror references the way in which women, and more specifically black women, have served as sites for the male gaze in fine art and visual culture." Indeed, in addition to race relations, Weems has always also been interested in issues of gender.
Weems' Ain't Jokin' series has at times been met with harsh criticism. For instance, the images stirred controversy when they were set to be exhibited in the Dalhousie University Art Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, in the spring of 1992. When the works arrived, gallery staff recognized that they were likely to be contentious and took steps to develop "positive mediation" for university students, particularly Black students. In one such effort, they invited University Employment Equity Officer Mayann Francis, and Black Student Advisor Beverly Johnson, to preview the exhibition and offer support and guidance for students who might find them triggering. Nevertheless, many students found the works distasteful, stating "We find the work of Carrie Weems to be offensive and degrading to black people. While we understand what Ms. Weems is attempting to do, we do not support this approach when attacking racism. [...] The long-term effect of these pictures on young minds regardless of colour can only be negative. [...] One might argue that since Ms. Weems is a black artist, surely 'it' must be alright? Quite the contrary. Whatever motivates her to attack racism in this fashion is unclear." The situation escalated to the point of students staging a sit-in protest, demanding the works be taken down.
Gelatin silver print with text panels - Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas
In Untitled, we see two people, presumably a Black couple, occupying a small kitchen. As the man reads a newspaper, it appears that his engrossment is complete disregard to the woman standing behind him in the shadows. Even as they both populate the room; his presence dominates the photograph. The table also separates the viewer from the action, while still drawing one in.
This image comes from Weems' best-known foray, The Kitchen Table Series (1989-90). In each of the twenty photographs, all of which were taken at Weems' simple wooden kitchen table with a single lamp hanging overhead, a different vignette of the artist's life is captured. Several pieces in the series feature Weems and her daughter fixing their hair and makeup, studying together, or playing cards. Other images show Weems with female family members and friends, smoking, laughing, and comforting one another. Others still, like this one, show Weems and a Black male partner eating dinner, embracing one another, or appearing more distant while engaging in separate activities although occupying the same space. The most poignant images are of Weems alone; in one she feeds a caged bird, and in another sits beside a half-empty bottle of wine, hugging her knees, and burying her head as if crying. Altogether, the series presents a narrative in which a romantic relationship fizzles out, and though the female protagonist finds some comfort in her friends and family, she ultimately must struggle through the situation alone. For Weems, the images pose the questions "What do women give to one another?" and "What do they pass on to one another?" She also states that the series is "about unpacking monogamy, the difficulty of monogamy, the trumped-upness of monogamy, this sort of ideal that never seems to pan out." Weems presents the kitchen table as the stage on which all the drama of domestic and family life plays out.
As each image was intentionally staged, the series thus serves as a performance piece showcasing a range of emotions, experiences, and shifting roles lived by women. Elisabeth Sann, director at Jack Shaman Gallery, notes that "Everyone can relate to this work. It's not just Black women; it's white women, Asian women. Men can see the women in their lives - memories from their childhood or scenes from their marriage or their family life. It's so universal and yet representation like this is so rare." As Weems herself explains, "This woman can stand in for me and for you; she can stand in for the audience, she leads you into history. She's a witness and a guide. Carrying a tremendous burden, she is a Black woman leading me through the trauma of history. I think it's very important that as a Black woman she's engaged with the world around her; she's engaged with history, she's engaged with looking, with being. She's a guide into circumstances seldom seen."
Sann asserts that "Weems's black-and-white photographs are like mirrors, each reflecting a collective experience: how selfhood shifts through passage of time; the sudden distance between people, both passable and impassable; the roles that women accumulate and oscillate between; how life emanates from the small space we occupy in the world." She adds, "I can't tell you how many people I've met in the art world - artists, curators, dealers - that point to The Kitchen Table Series as the one piece that made them know they wanted to be [...] in the arts."
Platinum/palladium print - National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Not Manet's Type
In this work, a black and white photograph occupies the top half of the frame. In it, we see a circular mirror sitting on a wooden desk, in which we see reflected Weems' nude backside, as she stands in contrapposto pose at the foot of her bed. Below the photograph is a text that reads "It was clear I was not Manet's type. Picasso - who had a way with women - only used me & Duchamp never even considered me." This work intends to critique the way in which white, male artists have historically dominated the world of "fine art," while objectifying and using women's bodies. It also highlights the legacy of Black women being excluded from art. Other works from the same series show Weems in different positions in the bedroom, with texts that state "Standing on shaky ground, I posed myself for critical study, but I was no longer certain of the questions to ask," and "I took a tip from Frida, who from her bed painted incessantly - beautifully while Diego scaled the scaffolds to the top of the world."
Says Weems of the male artists mentioned in the series (and indeed, nearly every white male artist throughout the history of Western art), "I can't rely on these artists. As much as I love them, I revere them, I'm also very, very disappointed in their engagement of the historical body of the Black self, of the Black body, of the Black imagination." Curator Lauren Turner asserts that "by serving as both muse and creator, Weems imparts a sly duality to her challenge: is she referring to the scrutiny of her as the composition's subject, or the critical study of her artistic output as a whole?"
Weems has long been concerned with the role of influence in the art historical canon, and the way in which this canon functions as a construct created by art historians. She calls upon artists to recognize it for what it is, and to break out of the (sexist, racist) power relations it prescribes and perpetuates. As she states, "You know, artists are influenced by other artists. We're all deeply influenced by what's around us; we don't make anything cold. Sometimes we think that we do. But within that, the most important part is that even though we're influenced, what are the levels of invention that we carry forth even as we've been influenced by something that's come before?"
Gelatin silver print - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
In this black and white photograph, from Weems' Museum Series (2006), the artist appears in a long, black dress, standing alone with her back to the camera, in front of the iconic pyramid of the Louvre in Paris. In each work in the series, Weems is pictured in the same black dress standing outside significant museums around the world. These images recall Romantic paintings, in which a single human figure, usually with their back to the viewer, is typically positioned within a dramatic landscape as an expression of the sublime, awe-inspiring, and at times frightful, power of nature.
Her similar series, Roaming, funded by a Rome Prize, is comprised of black and white photographs of the artist, again in a long black dress, framed by the impressive architecture and landscapes found around Italy.
In both The Museum Series and Roaming, Weems sought to challenge the commonly held idea that an African American woman artist was unable to resonate with international audiences. Says art critic Megan O'Grady of these images, "The figure - a testament to exclusion, longing for admission - challenges the idea of art made by white men as being the only art in Western culture capable of speaking to our common humanity."
Weems considers these photographic series to also be a sort of performance. She explains that "Architecture, in its essence [...] is very much about power. If we think about a place like Rome [...] what one is made to feel is the power of the state in relationship to [...] the general populace. You are always aware that you are sort of a minion in relationship to this enormous edifice - the edifice of power. [...] I thought, then, perhaps [...] I could use my own skin in a sort of series of performances. That I could use my own body as a way of leading the viewer into those spaces - highly aware - and challenging those spaces."
Digital C-print - Barbara Thumm Gallery, Berlin, Germany
A Woman Observes
A Woman in Winter, from Weems' video series Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment, shows a Black woman in a white dress standing in a room in which blossoms blow about in the wind. Through a monologue, the woman contemplates the passing of the seasons from winter to spring. As Weems states, "With one step, she can be in the future in an instant or in the past, or in the moment. The now. But to get to the now, to this moment, she needs to look back over the landscape of memory. Lost in memory, the woman faces history. A history with a story that has been told a thousand times before."
In 2003, Weems began working with video as a new medium, and in 2008 she released Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment. The project, created in collaboration with students from the Savannah College of Art and Design, involves Weems and the students re-enacting significant moments of political violence from history, such as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Benazir Bhutto, as well as the aftermath of the bombing at Hiroshima, and the arrest of civil rights activist Angela Davis. Some of the scenes are choreographed, drawing on Weems' early experience as a dancer. The artist explains, "I don't deal with the history of violence constantly because I want to, but really because I am compelled to. My background, my culture, my concerns, along with my skin, the way in which I have been marked by time forces me in some ways to do so."
Another recent work by Weems that blends photography, video, music, dance, performance, and spoken word, and in which the "woman in white" reappears, is Grace Notes: Reflections for Now (2016). This project was intended to comment on contemporary race relations in the United States, and the unnecessary deaths of young Black men across the nation. Says Weems, "The thing to me that is remarkable about our history, about who we are, about how we have conducted ourselves in the onslaught of history, is to maintain the core of our dignity [...] that is really the ultimate call of grace."
Video - Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, New York
A Land of Broken Dreams
In this installation, Weems presented several objects, including knick-knacks (such as plates featuring artworks by African American painter Kehinde Wiley) and historical photographs, arranged on and around furniture that viewers were welcomed to engage with. This included a series of shelves and cabinets mounted on a wall, as well as a classroom filled with desks, chairs, a blackboard, books, posters of historic Black leaders, and View-Masters. Another space in the exhibition was converted into a theater, where some of Weems' video works were projected. The work is intended to reimagine "the Black Panther Party's programs for young people in Chicago during the late 1960s and early 1970s," and to raise questions regarding leadership, inclusion, exclusion, access, history, and education. The way the installation functioned as livable, usable space served as a sort of tactic for getting viewers to immerse themselves in the work, and to form mental connections between the exhibition spaces and similar spaces (living rooms, classrooms, etc.) in their own lives.
Leigh Fagin, Senior Director of Programming and Engagement at the Logan Center asserts that this multi-space installation "asks viewers to question universal equity and justice against the backdrop of a variety of media engaging the intersection of race and education and the construction of identity and legacy. Weems reminds us that what we teach our children matters. We can offer them stereotypes, we can offer them untruths, but they ultimately become what they become in part due to what we offer them."
Moreover, Weems' installation did not stand alone. Rather, it was part of a "large-scale, multidisciplinary convening and concert series that [involved] a wide range of conversations, presentations, and performances featuring artists, poets, singers, dancers, thinkers, and scholars sharing work and exploring some of the most urgent issues facing society today." This included work by musician and hip-hop artist Jawwaad Taylor, poet and writer Quincy Troupe, and writer and musician Greg Tate. The project thus offered viewers multiple avenues by which to engage with the issues presented.
Photography, video, texts, bric-a-brac, and furniture - Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, Chicago, Illinois
Biography of Carrie Mae Weems
In 1953, Carrie Mae Weems was the second of seven children born to mother Carrie Polk and father Myrlie Weems, who had migrated North to Oregon from Mississippi. Myrlie's father had organized tenant farmers on the Sunshine Plantation, one of Mississippi's first cooperative farms with Black and White farmers. Weems' uncle Clarence had been photographed by Dorothea Lange in the 1930s.
Weems grew up in Portland, an area lacking other Black families. She remembers her childhood as being a happy one, and the family enjoyed vacations at the beach, and to Mount Hood. Weems' maternal grandfather ran a janitorial service and barbecue restaurant, employing many of their family members. She says that "He was Jewish, Native American, and black, but looked very Jewish, and he knew that basically he was passing for white and that he could do things that we couldn't so easily. So, he used all of that to make sure that his family was taken care of."
Drawing influence from these three cultural heritages in her work, Weems noted that, in particular, "There's a deep link between African-Americans and Jews, [...] I think that there's a shared sense of struggle in the country, and that, I think, forms an incredible bond between these two apparently very different groups of people." Elaborating, she states, "Two of the great human disasters [have been] slavery and the annihilation of the Jewish people. We're culturally and historically linked in a very unique way."
Weems idolized her father, who strongly resembled boxer Muhammad Ali. She says, "He was just a really charismatic kind of guy, funny and wonderful and warm, polite, open." He instilled a great deal of confidence in her. "My earliest memories are of my father picking me up and setting me on his knee. I was about 4 or 5. He looked at me, and he said, 'Carrie Mae, always remember that you have a right. Right? That no matter who messes with you, you pick up the biggest stick that you can, and you fight back with it.''" He also told her, "There's no man greater than you. You are greater than no other man." For the young artist, this became "the bedrock of my understanding, the bedrock of my belief system that really was instilled very, very early in my life, and repeated throughout my life, this idea that we had a right to be there."
When Weems was eight years old her parents divorced, though they continued to live in proximity, with Weems, her siblings, and her mother moving into a house owned by her grandfather. Recently, Weems realized that the divorce affected her more than she previously thought, and it marked a moment when she stopped drawing and painting for a time, activities she had always loved.
As a child, Weems would often play dress-up, imagining herself as a famous artist. "I was simply becoming interested in this idea of being an artist in the world in some sort of way, not knowing really what the arts were. I had these great, grand visions that I would move to New York City and that I would always arrive fabulously dressed, and I would always arrive late, and I would always leave early, and everybody would want to know who I was. 'Who is she?' That was my fantasy."
Most summers, Weems was sent to pick strawberries, until one year, when a drama teacher recognized her talent and paid a visit to her mother. Weems was sent to a summer program In Shakespearian theater. Through this experience, she discovered street performance, and enjoyed, as she says, "dancing at the crossroads at night to bring up the gods."
In 1970, when she was just sixteen, Weems gave birth to her only child, daughter Faith C. Weems. An aunt and uncle played a major role in raising Faith. Weems explains that "I've never really been a real mother. I think my daughter and I are more friends. Of course, there's an element of mother and daughter, but because I didn't raise her, we have a very different kind of relationship."
Later in 1970, Weems left home for San Francisco to study modern dance at the studio of dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin. While there, she met artists John Cage and Robert Morris. Weems explains, "I was in Anna's company for I suppose maybe a year or two [...] experimenting with very deep parts of dance and ideas about dance. Anna was really interested in ideas about peace and using dance as a way to bridge different cultures together as a vehicle for multicultural expression [...] I wasn't really so interested in dance, I just knew how to dance really well. I had a really, I think, deep sense of my body from a very early age."
Education and Early Training
In 1971, Weems moved to New York "with a baby on my back and a cardboard suitcase." Soon after, however, she returned to the West Coast and enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts, from which she earned a degree in 1981. She then earned an M.F.A. from the University of California, San Diego in 1984, and an M.A. in folklore studies from the University of California, Berkeley in 1987. While in San Diego, she lived with artist Lorna Simpson.
In 1973, Weems received her first camera as a birthday gift from her Marxist labor organizer boyfriend, Raymond. She recalls, "I thought, Oh, O.K. This is my tool. This is it.'" Weems was involved in the labor movement and used her camera as part of that activist work. She was particularly inspired by The Black Photographers Annual, a collection of works by African American photographers like Shawn Walker, Beuford Smith, Anthony Barboza, Ming Smith, Adger Cowans, and Roy DeCarava. Says Weems, "I remember standing in the middle of the floor flipping the pages, seeing images that just blew me away, like a bolt of lightning. I truly saw the possibility for myself - as both subject and artist. I knew that I would emulate what they had begun."
Weems moved back to New York in 1976, immersing herself at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she met other artists and photographers like Coreen Simpson and Frank Stewart. She took a photography class taught by Dawoud Bey and worked as an assistant to Anthony Barboza. Bey remembers young Weems as possessing a great deal of "humility and passion," and says that "We also both shared a sense that our very presence in the world, as human beings who were also black, demanded that we live lives and make work that somehow made a difference, that left the world transformed in some way, and that visualized a piece of that world that was uniquely ours and that participated in a larger cultural conversation inside of the medium of photography." Weems also became active in the Black photography community at the Kamoinge Workshop. Later, artist Janet Henry invited her to teach classes at the Studio Museum. Soon, Weems was dividing her time between New York and California.
In the late 1980s, Weems was teaching at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. She states that "I always had an exercise in self-portraiture in my classes. Invariably, all of the female students were in some way covered. They were always slightly behind the thing, whether it was their hair or an object or a piece of clothing. They were always sort of hidden. They were never square. They were always doing something to obscure the clarity of themselves. Because women were always sort of interested in being objects, because we've been trained to be objects. We've been trained to be desirous in some sort of way, to present ourselves in that sort of way."
In 1986, while working in the darkroom at the Visual Studies workshop (where she was undertaking a residency), Weems met her future husband, Jeff Hoone. He was the assistant director of the artist-run, non-profit organization Light Work from 1982 until 2021. When they met, she already recognized his name from an announcement for a black caucus in support of the Society for Photographic Education. She says, "I was like, 'Hmm, Jeff Hoone, that's an interesting name for a brother. I don't know any brothers named Hoone.' So, I wrote him this note, thinking that he was a black man: 'It's very nice to know that a brother is in charge over there, running this organization at Syracuse University.'" A mutual friend told her he would be stopping by the darkroom that day. As she recalls, "Jeff walked in, and I was a little taken aback. I think I was probably embarrassed because of the letter I had written. He walked in, and I looked at him, and I thought, 'Oh my god. This is going to be my husband.'"
In 2002, along with artists Deb Willis, Dawoud Bey, and Lonnie Graham, Weems co-founded Social Studies 101, a program that mentors youth in New York seeking creative careers. Following the tragic death in 2011 of a Black toddler, caught in the crossfire between two rival gangs in New York, Social Studies 101 launched Operation Activate. The anti-violence campaign took the form of billboards and posters put up around the city (as well as matchbooks distributed at bars and bodegas) that featured slogans like "A man does not become a man by killing another man," and "Contrary to popular belief, your life does matter."
In 2005, Weems received a Distinguished Photographer's Award. In 2013, she was bestowed a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and became the first African American woman to have a retrospective at the Guggenheim. In 2015, she was named a Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellow, and that same year, the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research presented her with the W. E. B. Du Bois Medal. She has taught photography around the country, including at Syracuse University. Since 2008, she has been represented by the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.
Weems currently splits her time between Syracuse, New York, and Fort Greene, Brooklyn and remains married to Hoone.
The Legacy of Carrie Mae Weems
Carrie Mae Weems is one of the most influential artists living in America today. Her photography, Performance and Installation art, video art, and other multi-media works delve into pressing contemporary issues related to race, gender, identity, and political violence. Art critic Holland Cotter calls Weems "one of our most effective visual and verbal rhetoricians" and "a superb image maker and a moral force, focused and irrepressible." Likewise, art critic Megan O'Grady calls Weems "canonical" and a "gifted storyteller," and asserts that Weems' photographs and short films, as gimlet-eyed and gutsy as they are visually compelling, have gone a long way toward resetting our expectations of pictures and challenging our assumptions about her largely African American subjects."
Many contemporary American artists cite Weems as a key influence. Artist and photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier, a former student of Weems', says that Weems' practice has inspired her "to hold myself accountable at all times, to raise questions from my own perspective and, most of all, to leave the door open and keep a seat at the table for others when given an institutional opportunity," as well as to support other artists and to have the courage to "confront the inequalities of our time." Frazier adds that Weems taught her "that I was not simply a photographer making beautifully framed objects but rather an artist who articulates creative thoughts and ideologies that dismantle institutional and systemic racism, injustice, hierarchy, violence against black bodies, and crimes against humanity." Artist, photographer, and filmmaker Laurie Simmons has been inspired by Weems to use her art to explore "women in interior space," and Conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas was influenced from an early age by Weems' use of archival materials in her art. Meanwhile, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat has been influenced by the way in which Weems uses her powerful voice and position as an artist to work as a sort of "cultural activist."