On September 18th, 2014, a wide array of people, ranging from the toddling daughters of Frances Perkins scholars, to traditional college students, to the Weissmans who fund the Weissman center, to members of the wider community, all braved the unairconditioned Gamble Auditorium in the late September heat in order to hear the renowned artist, Carrie Mae Weems, give a lecture on Arts and Humanity. It was standing room only and students willingly gave up their seats to members of the community, opting instead to watch her presentation, with a slideshow component, from the back. By way of introduction, John Stromberg, the Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art Director, discussed his friendship with Weem’s and highlighted how her various perspectives and transformative pieces have redirected the flow of contemporary art, winning Weems not only a 2012 exhibit at the Frist Center and a retrospective at the Guggenheim (she is the first black woman to be awarded this honor), but also the Prix de Roma and the MacArthur Genius Grant.
The artist took the stage to loud applause. She was poised and smiling and the audience immediately fell silent as she began to speak. Over 300 hundred members in this diverse audience, and you could all but hear the click of Weem’s mouse. She immediately proved her right to a Genius Grant by seamlessly navigating the opening and operating of her powerpoint show without any technical glitches or apologies, a feat previously unheard of on Mount Holyoke’s campus. Moving through her photographs, the selection of her pieces is not chronological. That could be exhausting after a thirty-year long successful career as an artist. Rather, she began her presentation by discussing how photography is an art that informs you, providing you with the opportunity to look back and reflect on “what you are up to”. This selection of images is reflective and thematic, sliding from some of her best known pieces, such as “The Kitchen Table”(below) to images of recent signs she created and then posted around her neighborhood in response to the gang-related killing of a young boy who lived only a few streets away from her.
The juxtaposition between family, art, and civil dialogue was reflected on throughout Weem’s presentation. This movement between her pieces examined the circuits that run between relationships, contexts, and engagement. These links are central to Weem’s formation as an artist and to her body of work. She said that one of the question she seeks to asks both herself and others through her art is: “How do you activate?”. Weems’ work does a wonderful job of engaging people in a wide discourse on civic identity and engagement. She communicates differences and similarities simultaneously by her works’ emphasis on resistance and the placement of not only images and text but her own body within specific contexts. Her work represents her multi-faceted identity as a black female visual artist living in a country where racism, while always prevalent, moves between the honeyed smile of elitist micro-aggression and obvert state-sanctioned brutality.
Her coming to Mount Holyoke College in the wake of last year’s Mohonest campaign and the Ferguson protests made her discussion of race, presence, and context especially poignant and timely.
One of the most powerful moments in her presentation was her showcasing the images from her Louisiana Project and her Roaming series (images from both are pictured below). In these images, Weems inserts herself and other black women into historical, and historicized images of both Louisiana and Rome, contextualizing wealth and culture in a narrative that has been visually white-washed and historically sanitized it their representations of race. During the question and answer portion of her talk, a member of the audience asked Weems why she used her self in her images. “Because it is convenient,” she replied to laughs from the audience.
The Louisiana Project, 2003
Her inclusion of her self, with her multi-faceted identities, however, becomes more than convenient. It becomes a political and social statement on what spaces are deemed appropriate and accessible for different races. A question she received while traveling and working in Rome was “What are you doing here?”. This was a question asked by friends she had already met and worked with in the United States. They were surprised to see her moving through the setting of Rome, as the recognized space of cultural privilege that it is. The implication of this question, as Weems noted, was that she didn’t belong there. It was a space for wealthy white tourists and intellectuals. This led to the most powerful part of Weems’ Art and Humanity lecture, as she stated, “Nigeria isn’t the only place I need to visit.” The audience applauded loudly at this, as Weems talked about the prejudices and assumptions of the art world that limit people of color and people of lower socioeconomic classes in terms of their exposure to culturally significant ideas, places, and museums. She encouraged the audience to question who they shared certain ideas with and not to assume that seemingly ‘hallowed’ cultural ideas and spaces belonged to specific groups of people. These images, showcasing the black female body, allow the viewer to enter into the images from the inclusive viewpoint that Weems has curated. Her pieces, and her discussion, exposed the lack of inclusion and awareness that the absence of not just her body, but all bodies and identities, and the history and assumptions that are attached to their images, engender.
A taste of Weems’ dedication to bearing witness can still be had, though the event happened in September, at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, with its recent acquisition of Weems’ piece, “I Looked and Looked to See What so Terrified You.” In this self-portrait, Weems is wearing a beautiful patchwork dress, her face is lit by light and she looks beautiful as she gazes into a handheld mirror, a pastiche of the classical image of a woman arrested by her own reflected image, to see her reflection as a black woman that ostensibly is so threatening.