Reviewed by Gladys-Katherina Hernando
Demanding, even confrontational, her tone fluctuates from humorous to quietly contemplative, her aesthetic meanders from folklore narrative to complex conceptual arrangements, defying precise categorization.
For thirty years, Carrie Mae Weems has used language and performance to chart an alternative pathway into photographic meaning. Weems’s hybrid strategies of image, sound, appropriation, and language flourished in the wake of the postmodern art of the 70s and 80s, contextualized with such contemporaries as Barbara Kruger, Lorraine O’Grady, and Cindy Sherman. But Weems’s address of social and cultural issues, specifically those related to the historical image of African Americans continue her relevance, most potently around the “self-made woman performing womanhood” as Robert Storr puts it in his essay “Carrie Mae Weems: Anyway I Want It.”
Published on the occasion of her first mid-career retrospective exhibition at the Frist Center for Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee, that will travel for the next two years, Weems’s retrospective catalogue illustrates a particular feeling: its black fabric cover with the artist’s name embossed in simple silver leaf and a square photo of a figure facing the sea in a black dress from Weems’s series Roaming, 2006, anticipates a seriousness. Unpacking her major points of focus—folklore, beauty, gender, social class, representation, and most provocatively, performance, the four catalogue essays by curator Kathryn E. Delmez and contributors Henry Louis Gates Jr., Franklin Sirmans, Robert Storr, and Deborah Willis solidify, and at times overlap and contradict, the stakes of Weems’s work.
I recently saw a large installation of Weems’s Family Pictures and Stories, 1978–84, in the exhibition “Blues for Smoke” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The museum presented this iteration as a series of at least 30 photographs arranged around a room dedicated to the work. Weems’s first major body of work, it is composed of candid images of an African American family with short, narrative texts inserted into the cut-out mat of some of the frames. The texts navigate both the positive and negative aspects of the family’s intimate relationships, while an audio track of Weems’s voice plays as an ambient dialogue overhead. This early work is notable for its narrative complexity that envelops the viewer in the experience of looking, reading, and listening. What begins in this work and continues to evolve in Weems’s photographs is a dialogue with storytelling and performance.
Weems participated in Anna Halprin’s progressive San Francisco Dancer’s Workshop, a fertile ground for multi-disciplinary artists in the 1960 and 70s, including Robert Morris, Yvonne Rainer, and Simone Forti, among others. Halprin’s philosophy was to break down the boundaries of performance, not relegating it to a stage or the theatre. The influence of this experience on Weems is perhaps one of the most intriguing elements to her work, since what is discovered when seeing the full scope of her work in this catalogue, is that it was Weems’s family in Family Pictures and Stories, and Weems is the figure that boldly captivates the viewer in the majority of her photographs.
In the Kitchen Table Series, 1990, and beyond, Weems becomes the activating, heroic figure in her pictures, not as self-portraits, but as the performer of a broad range of issues that push the limits of representation. Weems asks questions that are not simply answered in a passing glance. Robert Storr describes this strategy as “turning the tables on the viewer, providing some of the satisfactions of a familiar genre while making it inescapably plain that nothing is to be taken at face value, nothing is simply what it was, nor as it ideally should be.” Weems constantly disrupts the straightforward nature of photography into a photo-theatrical hybrid that is both challenging and complex.
Looking and reading this work again, as Franklin Sirmans reminds us, is “the fact that black women as subjects in the history of art, even contemporary art in the 1990[s], were nearly invisible.” Despite the critical force of Weems’s work, the relative legacy of her practice has, until now, lacked institutional recognition on a wide scale and is a reminder of the disparities that still remain.
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Kathryn E. Delmez, Ed., Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, (Yale University Press, 2012)
Images: Cover of Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video and images from the book, and the exhibition by the same title at Frist Center for the Visual Arts.