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Carrie Mae Weems has spent the past 30 years documenting race, class, and gender issues through the lens of her camera, and those three decades are on display in a fascinating way in a new major museum retrospective of her work entitled “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video that recently opened at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts. An Anthropological Debate

Hundreds of provocative and compelling images culled from more than 15 museum and private collections make up the amazing retrospective that traces Weems’ work from her earliest documentary pieces, to the more layered conceptual pieces of her more recent work. Widely acclaimed as one of the most respected interpreters of the African-American experience, Weems heavily explores racial issues in her photos and videos, along with underlying ideas about equality, justice, and the power structure and divide across America.  

Her work is distinctive in many ways, one being that she is often the subject of her own photographs, and the other in that she creates equally thought-provoking and poetic narration to accompany her own stirring images. The words she provides to accompany her photographs, (which in one series are actually etched onto the glass themselves,) provide a deeper and certainly different level of engagement for the viewer. From her earliest series “Family Pictures and Stories,” which challenges the standard attitudes about love, marriage, and offspring, through her “fade to blackAmerican Icons” series, and up to her most recent work in “Slow Fade To Black,” Weems examines the role of the African American in history in controversial and thought-provoking ways that definitely have the power to elicit visceral reactions.

Case in point -- during the Nashville press viewing of the exhibition, an African American press woman turned to Weems with tears in her eyes after staring at an image of a slave whose back was gnarled and scarred from a whipping in the “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried” series from 1995-1996. The young woman inquired how Weems is able to separate herself from the pain of the horrific and haunting images, and the moment was a perfect illustration of the immense, raw power of Weems' work.

The powerful and stunning series was commissioned by the J Paul Getty Museum as it was organizing an exhibition of African American subjects in early photographs and specifically daguerreotypes. The curator invited Weems to repurpose and in essence, recreate these powerful, searing images set in a deep red tint that hint at the pain and suffering exposed in each of these haunting photographs.

“It’s a very painful image and I understand the response,” says Weems. “I think that was why it was so important to layer that particular image with the text that’s there. And to talk about that experience. And that image has sparked amazing artistic expressions by artists like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, dealing with this tragedy. You know, how do we talk about it? How do we take the tragic and make it almost sublime? How do we use it in order to further ourselves as opposed to allowing it to destroy who we are? That’s the power of using that image in the show.” 

I think the beauty and grace that arises out of hisbroad expansive skytorical understanding is so important, because it gives you great sympathy, it gives you great compassion. The feeling of, ‘I’m so happy to be black in America I don’t know what to do!’ Even with all of its instability and everything that has happened, I’m thankful, I’m grateful for the experience.”

As a great lover of both African-American history and of photography, Weems had already amassed quite an archive of research when the Getty  Museum came calling, and was eager to explore the use of appropriated images in this way. She says she is still moved by what happened when she meshed the two in such a unique and unexpected way.

“I do a great deal of research when I’m working on a project…I love archives, I really do. And I spend a lot of time digging in them, looking for things, and looking at photographs, particularly for this project. I spent a lot of time pulling together a massive archive of my own. I went to the Smithsonian and pulled together thousands and thousands of images, so I had been looking at images for a long time, and doing research for a long time when the Getty called.” 

“But one of the things I wanted to get out of the piece is that I knew I wanted to explore something about the idea of photographic history, because I am deeply interested in the history of photography -- what photography has been, what photography is now -- and also in the presence of Africans and African Americans in photography historically and now. So it was a really wonderful way of collapsing these two things on top of one another and really looking at them in a succinct way, 35 images. What has been the history of photography, who have been some of the major players, and why and what did their images mean to me and to the subjects? Sothe Lousiana Project A FAR OFF VIEW it was a really beautiful sort-of coming together, and I’m still surprised by it. It was an entirely appropriated set of images, so it allowed me to use the material from the archive to really revisit ideas I had been thinking about for a long time and then bring those ideas together in a constructing history MOURNINGvery succinct way.” 

Weems’ deep interest in history is evident throughout her works, in series like 1991’s “Sea Island Series," where she documents the Gullah communities off the Coast of South Carolina and Georgia, her 2003 “Louisiana Project,” which explores the racial complexities distinct to that state and its antebellum history, and her more recent “Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment,” which offers up reenactments of key moments in the struggle for civil rights, such as JFK and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Much has changed over the course of her life and in front of her very eyes, and thanks to her unyielding investment in curiosity, Weems found ways to document much of it for us.

A native of Portland, Oregon, Weems pursued a career in modern dance in California in her late teens, and it was there she became a social and political activist. She began pursuing photography in the late ‘70’s as a means of personal documentation, but it quickly grew into a form of intellectual expression for the artist, who holds a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts and is an avid student of history, literature, philosophy, folklore, and politics, all of which factor heavily into her work.

“The retrospective starts from her “Family Pictures and Stories” series and with her own family, and lays the groundwork for everything she’s done in the past and establishes her as a storyteller,” explains her husband Jeffrey Hoone. “It establishes her as someone who is interested in other people’s stories, as someone wanting to make other people’s stories a more universal voice. She has a unique insight in what it means to be an American, in what it means to be a human, what it means to struggle.” kitchen

He continues, “She was born in the 1950’s, and her life was informed by the Civil Rights movement, and all the struggles and calamities of the 60’s, and the illumination of the feminist movement. And her work is grounded in the medium of photography, and its move from modernism into post-modernism. She pondered what photography could mean from a position of representation. So when you take those ideas, her as a storyteller, a woman whose life has been informed by the world around her, you’re gonna get an experience of what we expect and what we want of the best artists of our generation. Those are the artists whoRitual and Revolution can interpret our life and times from their particular point of view, and make it a more universal story that uses the tools available to them to do that.”

Weems uses many different mediums to achieve that storytelling, from still shots to video,to muslin banners with an audio component, and employs them in ways that affect all the senses, not just the eyes. In her 1998 “Ritual and Revolution” installment, she enables the visitor to literally walk through history via luminescent images that evoke struggles for power and equality throughout history – the Palace of Versailles, ancient Assyrian steps, a crumbling Greek statue, and other enlarged photographs that hang almost ghostlike from ceiling-to-floor on semi-transparent muslin curtains.

“There is a consistency in the work but never a sameness,” explains Hoone. She uses different mediums, different approaches, different ideas, and she is so invested in curiosity. She also has a love of the medium that she’s chosen. Her work is not a didactic journey, it’s a story that holds great care about what an image means, how it’s arranged, what it looks like, what form it’s in, from a photograph, to a mural, to a video, to a place. This retrospective is really a culmination of an artist who is at the peak of her power of expression. And it has amazing resilience and consistency from personal perspective of a storyteller who embraces what it means to live now and what it can mean to live in the future.”

For Weems, no matter the mediuvideom, the ultimate goal has remained the same – to help ensure that marginalized peoples and hidden parts of history are recorded into the history books for future acknowledgement. She strives not only to bring these to light, but also to provide a broader picture of humanity that will increase awareness and maybe even some compassion among future generations.

“What I think I try to do with the work is to figure out a way of, even though we’re very, very different, figure out a way to bring people together. It’s call to action if you will. You know, how do I get into this thing now…how do I talk about what it means to be a woman now, unlike the way in which I talked about being a woman in 1990. How do I talk about the complexities of class now, how do I talk about the structures of power now. Those are the great themes that I think run through much of the work, and I think it’s really a matter of intersection -- of how to use and how to speak about what I sense as an artist, what I feel as an artist, what I believe I can do as an artist, and figure out ways to capture the complicated, tumultuous stories that we happen to be living through.”

This exhibition is organized by the Frist Center and was curated by Frist Center Curator Katie Delmez. It will run from September 21, 2012–January 13, 2013.

For more information, museum hours and special events, go to

Fortunately for those of you who do not live in Nashville, this exhibition will then travel to the following venues:

Portland Art Museum (OR):  Feb. 2–May 19, 2013

Cleveland Museum of Art:  June 30–Sept. 29, 2013

Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University: Oct. 16, 2013–Jan. 5, 2014

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York: Jan. 24–April 23, 2014 / Issue 139 - September 5082
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