Here’s my review of the Carrie Mae Weems’ lecture from last Thursday night and her “Student Leadership and Careers Luncheon” from the following Friday. She was wonderful to listen to and talk with!
Carrie Mae Weems strolls up to the podium at Gamble auditorium, filled to the brim with students, professors, art yuppies and locals of South Hadley waiting in anticipation of her lecture Thursday night. Soft in a rose tunic, she radiates a warm, smart energy, ready to roll into her lecture. It’s easy for her, standing before a crowd, flipping lightning-fast through first slides of her work. She wastes no time. The artist has over thirty years of material to cover, after all.
I think, very simply, I’m tenacious,” Ms. Weems later tells me, smiling, seated at the head of a little table rounded with students at a “lunch” conversation, part of her fall weekend residency at Holyoke. “I am very hardworking, and I work diligently.” There’s weight in that grin; a MacArthur genius award, National Medal of Arts, and celebrated exhibitions at the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, and The Whitney, among other institutions, mark the repute of the artist. She is serious, but gracious, efficient, but at ease, takes time with words, and pauses mid-sentence to think when needed—her silence is someone else’s “um.” For an hour, she thoughtfully answers our questions about her career and our own aspirations as students. She is thirty minutes late to the lunch, but we’re the ones racing to keep up with her through it.
Weems started creating art (primarily photography but also installation, video, and works with text, fabric and audio) and first picked up a camera in her early twenties, having once “traded a car [in] college for a polaroid” (a laugh hums around the auditorium audience). Her repertoire has been fundamentally political from the start; using herself in much of her photography and video helps define her volume of work that communicates ideas about race, gender, and class. The subject matter reaches beyond these themes, though, too, in exploration of the complexities of “just being human.” When she hears the word “political” in the context of describing her art, Ms. Weems insists that “the term of course needs to be defined…[it] may be better for me to say that the work is inherently dealing with a multitude of questions that have brought social ramifications.” As Holland Cotter of The New York Times describes in a review of Ms. Weems’ January Guggenheim retrospective, “This is political art, but primarily in the personal-is-political sense. Issues of race and class are certainly there, but subsumed into the universal realities of life lived, daily, messy, crowded, at home.”
The idea of home, of tradition, of convention, roots deep in the heart of Ms. Weems’ work. With a degree in folklore from Berkeley, the artist explores customs and ideas about community, assumptions made about groups in history, and the power of personal accounts to relay these ideas. In “The Kitchen Table Series,” a 1990 collection of black-and-white photographs of Weems and other models at her own table and home, questions of relationship, dynamics of power, and meditations on solitude surface in starkly-lit images. In one of them, Weems leans over a plate of lobster to caress her lover. The creature on her plate is intact; his is ripped apart. Her glass of wine is full; his empty. In another, a daughter figure stares with spite at Ms. Weems, who glares back with comparable ‘tude (“This little girl I saw terrorizing a boy on a bike in the street and thought: there’s my girl,” jokes Weems, as she talks about models in the series (more laughter volleys around the auditorium)). In another image, Weems, alone, stares right at the viewer, leaning over with hands spread on the table, corporate meeting style. Personal accounts and narratives accompany the images, which the audience at her lecture don’t get to see on her slideshow, I assume for the sake of time: “There’s a difference between men and women. I can’t tell ya what to do. But I can tell you that I sided with men so long I forgot women had a side. Truth slapped me so hard up-side my head, I cried for days, got so I couldn’t wash my own behind. Shonuff blue. Biggest fool in the world.”
In another series from 1995, “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” Weems appropriates thirty-three images and superimposes them with text of a similarly narrative, and sometimes more poetic, tone. At a point in her lecture, Weems slows down her time-transcendent presentation to read the panels of the piece like verse, her melodic voice careful and poignant:
“BORN WITH A VEIL
YOU BECAME ROOT WORKER
The series, like others of hers, devise a telling dialogue about race relations. However, it’s all “…not just about whether the work is black political art. It’s more about how the work is situated to the defined cannon—the cannon which is modernism,” explains Weems, “which we value most today.” For people of color and their work that studies black communities, Weems argues, the work often takes a place outside understandings of modernism. “It’s a place outside and is considered “other,” because there’s an “idea that it will be consumed by a smaller portion of the population or is only consumable by a smaller portion of the population, thereby limiting its value.”
As the first and so far only African American ever given a retrospective at the Guggenheim, Weems reflects on her role in an often unjust world: “I spend as much time thinking about myself as an artist as I think about the system of art that I’m involved in and what that system really means….Jeff Koons will sell, you know, a glass pitcher, and he might receive ten million dollars for it. And probably if you look at everything that I’ve got sitting in my closet it won’t sell for that. Later in the lecture, she admits that “the art world will not slow down to think about equity, gender equality, and for that matter, questions around ethnicity as well,” shrugs Weems.”
Ms. Weems never has even a second to bite into her turkey sandwich during our discussion, and pushes for more questions at the end of her lecture. Admirers, friends, insistent art-goers and students surge at her all weekend. I can barely get five minutes with this woman during her residency to ask her questions for my magazine writing class; she’s the type of person people butt in front of each other to get closer to. Eventually, rising in front of us, she whispers, “I think it’s time for me to go home now. My husband will barely recognize me.” And with that, she circles round us and shakes and holds our hands. And with that, she glides out the door.