Carrie Mae Weems
Recent Work (2003) /
The Fabric Workshop
Occupation: Artist, Photographer
Born: Portland, Oregon, 1953.
Institute of the Arts, Valencia, B.A. 1981; University of California, San Diego,
M.F.A. 1984; University of California, Berkeley, M.A. 1987.
assistant, University of California, San Diego, 1983-84; teacher, San Diego City
College, California, 1984; teaching assistant, University of California,
Berkeley, 1987; assistant professor, Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts,
1987-91; assistant professor, California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland,
1991. Artist-in-residence, Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, New York, 1986,
Light Work, Syracuse, New York, 1988, Art Institute of Chicago, 1990, Rhode
Island School of Design, 1990; visiting professor, Hunter College, New York,
Awards: Los Angeles Women's Building Poster Award, 1981;
University of California Fellowship, 1981-85; University of California
Chancellor's grant, 1982; California Arts Council grant, 1983; Massachusetts
Artists Fellowship (finalist), 1988, 1989; Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, 1992;
Photographer of the Year Award, Friends of Photography, Ansel Adams Center, San
Francisco, 1994; National Endowment for the Arts Visual Arts grant, 1994-95.
P.P.O.W., 532 Broadway, New York, New York 10012, U.S.A.
* * * *
LOOKING INTO THE MIRROR,
BLACK WOMAN ASKED,
"MIRROR, MIRROR ON
WHO'S THE FAIREST OF THEM
THE MIRROR SAYS, "SNOW
WHITE YOU BLACK BITCH, AND
DON'T YOU FORGET IT!!!"
* * * *
From Carrie's Kitchen Table and Beyond
By Dana Friis-Hansen
Contemporary Arts Museum
In the course of her fifteen-year photographic career,
Carrie Mae Weems has
created a rich array of documentary series, still lives, narrative tableaux, and
installation works. Her art balances rich and universal themes with the
specifics of personal, cultural, national, and world histories. Often mixing
hard realities with a personal vision, some works are pointedly political,
bitter with the pain of past injustices and still prevalent prejudices, while
other work is playful and even celebratory. The work presented here, the Kitchen
Table Series, 1990, supplemented with several related works, was created
during a richly productive period between 1987 and 1992. During this period
Weems expanded the perspective of her work from the personal (her family's
experiences) and the political (racism) to broader issues of gender relations,
individual identity, and parenting.
The daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers who moved to Oregon in the 1950s,
Weems relocated in San Francisco after high school to study modern dance. While
working in a clothing factory to support herself, she became politically active
in the labor movement as a union organizer. She came to visual art as an adult,
receiving her BA when she was twenty-eight and her MFA at thirty- one. Weems
received her first camera as a twenty-first birthday present and, at first, used
it as a tool for political rather than for creative purposes. Later, she saw a
book of images by African-American photographers, The Black Photography
Annual, which inspired her to pursue art seriously.
Weems' interest in art was sparked by those African-American artists who
revealed something special about the Black experience, who spoke to and about
the rich, broad spectrum of her culture. One key body of work which she mentions
frequently as an inspiration is
Sweet Flypaper of Life, a 1955 photo
and prose-poem essay by photographer
Roy DeCarava and poet
Langston Hughes, both
African-American New Yorkers. Examining the relationship of Weems' work to DeCarava's, critic bell hooks has written: "She was particularly inspired
by DeCarava's visual representations of black subjects that invert the dominant
culture's aesthetics… DeCarava endeavored to reframe the black image within a
subversive politics of representation that challenged the logic of racist
colonization and dehumanization."1
Weems' first major body of work, and a key precedent for the work presented
in this exhibition, was the series Family Pictures and Stories, begun in
1978 and completed in 1983, which combined casual images of her relatives in
their daily lives with audiotaped interviews and printed commentary. The artist
explained about this work:
My work reflects my desire to understand my experience in relation to my
family and my family's experience in relation to black families in this
country.... I am fascinated by the distances between people in the same
family, between men and women, and between ethnic groups and nationalities
through the use of language derived from experience. There's a certain
language that comes out of sharecropping and cotton farming, that comes out of
the way men and women, women and children, and women and women share
experiences. That's the vitality of language.2
Weems' subsequent work was more political—interrogating the lingering
racism which lurks in the locker room or in office jokes or on household
knick-knack shelves. Her 1987-88 Ain't Jokin' Series paired
straightforward portraits of African-Americans with racist jokes, using
satirical incongruity to provoke in viewers—of any race—a sense of shock and
shame at their recognition of internalized racism. Another series, American
Icons, created from 1988 to 1989 takes the form of domestic still lives
inhabited by stereotypically racist figurines such as "Aunt Jemima,"
"Steppin- fetchit," or "Uncle Tom," which function to
preserve notions of white supremacy. At the time, Weems was engaged in graduate
studies in the Folklore Program at the University of California, Berkeley, a
research center which collects stories, superstitions, images, and objects from
everyday "material culture" as clues to understanding society.
Utilizing such details—loaded fragments of culture—has become a strategy she
By the late 1980s, Weems started to broaden the scope of her work, moving
from issues of race to gender. During that decade, women artists in general
gained increasing voice and visibility within the art world. Photographic
artists such as Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine,
and others who came to public attention in the early 1980s used tableaux and
images rephotographed from high art and pop culture to explore issues of female
identity.3 The discussion of art at this time was often linked to semiotics,
political analysis, and psychoanalytic theory, and one key text was British film
critic Laura Mulvey's essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,"
published in 1975. Drawing specifically upon ideas from psychoanalysis, Mulvey
posited that "the image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active)
gaze of men" is what defines the spectacle of cinema.4
In the Kitchen Table Series and other related works, Weems sought to
go beyond this prevalent discourse about the all-powerful "male gaze."
The artist asserted, "These [works] were made at a moment when—as a result
of theory--a woman didn't know how to construct an image of herself. The
image-making was starting to follow the theory of Laura Mulvey, etc. rather than
the other way around! There was a fear on the part of visual artists to take
control of our bodies, our sexuality. I was trying to respond to a number of
issues: woman's subjectivity, woman's capacity to revel in her body, and woman's
construction of herself, and her own image."5
The current exhibition features four works which precede the Kitchen Table
Series and help set the stage for the issues it addresses. Untitled (Hat
on bed), 1987, Untitled (Portrait of a woman), 1987, and Untitled
(O'Jays), 1987, each deal with male/female relations, superstitions, and
expectations using folklore, body language, and pop culture references.
Untitled (Jim, if you choose), 1987, was the first image shot at the
table which soon would become quite familiar in subsequent series. Like many of
the Ain't Jokin' series, Untitled (Jim, if you choose) combines a
portrait with a short text printed onto the negative. Responding to the racist
assumption that African-American men are unable to support themselves or their
families, Weems' caption adapts the opening lines of the 1960s television show
"Mission Impossible." The work focuses on the social and economic
roles of African-American men, pointing directly to gender, identity, and family
relationships also raised in the Kitchen Table Series.6
Twenty images and thirteen text panels comprise the Kitchen Table Series,
which pivots around the experience of one woman (played by Weems) who appears in
every frame. Of the fourteen works (three are triptychs), she appears alone in
five works, in another five she is joined by one or more other females, while in
the remaining four a gentleman is visiting. The square composition remains
constant throughout the series: under a single hanging light, one person appears
at the far end of a table. Sometimes he or she is joined by others on the sides.
There is always a place for the viewer at the near end of the table, which comes
right to the edge of the frame, mimicking a seventeenth century still life
compositional strategy used to make a scene more intimate. Yet this device also
helps us sense the space as a proscenium theatre, a set where the drama will
Weems directs a visual narrative that is simple enough to "read"
without perusing the separate texts. Most are single, declarative images, though
three triptychs rely on sequential imaging to resolve a more complicated
incident. Weems is exploring a full range of life's complex emotional
experiences—desire, seduction, isolation, commiseration, companionship,
responsibility, independence, and self-reliance. The artist relies on the modern
viewer's media literacy, as we recognize the plotlines through our familiarity
with a range of narrative forms from comic books and photo-novellas to soap
operas or sitcoms. For example, by placing the phone in the foreground of Untitled
(Woman and phone), Weems makes us feel the tension as she waits for that
The care offered in Untitled (Woman brushing hair) reveals an
intimate friendship while the triptych Untitled (Women with Friends)
captures the solidarity of sisterhood in three acts. These images are as crisp
and graphic as film stills, yet with Weems both behind and in front of the
camera, as both "auteur" and actor, the result is worlds away from
Mulvey's "male gaze" or the spectrum of cinematic stereotypes played
coyly by Cindy Sherman.
From the first image, Untitled (Man and mirror),
we see a strong female character who dares to look out directly at the viewer,
or to simply ignore our presence.
Early in her career Weems was introduced to the writings of Zora Neale
Hurston.7 Their Eyes Were Watching God features a "female hero…on
a quest for her own identity…who defied everything that was expected of
her."8 Weems' heroine shares qualities with that novel's main character,
yet Weems brings the image of a strong Black woman into the contemporary moment.
The Kitchen Table Series explores human experience not only from the
vantage point of a female subject and viewer, but also from an African-American
point of view. Weems has commented, "One of the things that I was thinking
about was whether it might be possible to use Black subjects to represent
universal concerns.…" Hollywood's use of white subjects offered her
little inspiration. "I wanted to create that same kind of experience using
my subjects."9 While its visual presentation features Black actors and
Malcolm X posters, it is in her texts that Weems injects the tone, timbre, and
voice of the African-American experience.
Rather than explanations or captions, the thirteen text panels interspersed
amongst the images offer a counterpoint to the pictures: an ever-changing mix of
real conversation, storytelling, internal ruminations, or lyrics from a Blues
and R&B soundtrack. Family Pictures and Stories includes an
inter-weaving of both text and audio tapes of real voices. The contradictions
between text and image in the earlier series, Weems explained, "…bring up
notions of the interpretation of experience, of make-believe, fiction,
storytelling, and folklore. They are all part of the truth."10
Weems' texts were first "written" as spoken words; on a driving
trip she recorded the commentaries onto tape, transcribing and editing them
later. Actual voices provide authenticity and context, as she has pointed out:
"For hundreds of years people have used the oral tradition for this
purpose, breathing life into days gone, times remembered, and stories
told."11 All of her texts are sprinkled with African-American slang,
sayings, and song lyrics that literally provide "local color." About
her use of text, one critic wrote: "Trained as a folklorist as well as an
artist, Weems has found the implications and subtlety of folklore more
interesting than text used didactically; for her it's an unmediated form of
communication that has the ability to speak more directly to deeper issues. . .
Through the language of African-American folk wisdom, culture, and the blues,
Weems attempts to locate her own voice, in a present-day extension and
reinterpretation of tradition."12
Weems periodically creates works in unconventional formats that suit the
needs of the message she seeks to send, and this exhibition includes two
examples created in the same period as her Kitchen Table Series. In Commemorating,
1992, an editioned series of twenty works (of which eight are shown here), she
chose as her medium Lenox china dinner plates, ivory ringed in gold, with a text
in the middle. Providing an alternative to the racist figurines which populate
her American Icons series, these collectibles celebrate the achievements
of both familiar and lesser known African-Americans and those who helped the
cause. Plates play a functional domestic role, yet these elegant objects
reaffirm a forgotten history.
When Weems was commissioned by Liz Claiborne, Inc. to create poster designs
for public service announcements against domestic violence,13 she chose to use
three images in the now-familiar kitchen table format, with male, female, and
child actors. Their dramatic poses and strongly toned message extended Weems'
concerns about gender relations into a larger and more public arena.
With their deftly staged photographs and richly written texts, the work in
this exhibition is fresh, insightful and inspiring. As has been said of
Sweet Flypaper of Life which so inspired her, Weems' contemporary images and
texts are "wed in a most perfect union to tell the story of ordinary people
who work and play, love and hate, marry and divorce, raise children and let them
go, and who cope extraordinarily."14 Weems achieves a broad and universal
narrative which provides important insights into the human condition while
speaking through the experiences of women and African-Americans. From her
kitchen table, Carrie Mae Weems has staged a worldly drama.
1 bell hooks, "Diasporic Landscapes of Longing,"
Carrie Mae Weems (Philadelphia:
The Fabric Workshop, 1994), reprinted in bell
Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New York: The New Press, 1995), p. 67.
2 Carrie Mae Weems, interview with Lois Tarlow, Art New England (August/September
1991), p. 11.
3 Others include Sarah Charlesworth, Jo Ann Callis, Ellen Brooks, Sylvia
Kolkowski, Jo Spence, and Anne Turyn.
4 Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,"
Screen, 16, No.
3 (Autumn 1975), pp. 6- 18, reprinted in
Art after Modernism, Brian Wallis, ed.
(New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), p. 372.
5 Carrie Mae Weems, phone interview with the author, February 6, 1996.
6 Parts of the Kitchen Table Series and the Commemorating series were included in
the important exhibition Black Male at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1995.
7 Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was an African-American novelist, folklorist and
anthropologist active during the Harlem Renaissance.
8 Mary Helen Washington, "Fore-word," in Zora Neale
Hurston, Their Eyes Were
(New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1990), pp. viii-ix.
9 bell hooks, "Talking Art with Carrie Mae Weems,"
Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New York: The New Press, 1995), p. 76.
10 Carrie Mae Weems, quoted in Lois Tarlow, op.cit., p. 11.
11 Carrie Mae Weems, quoted in Brian Wallis, "Questioning Documentary,"
Aperture (Fall 1988), p. 64, cited in Andrea Kirsch,
Carrie Mae Weems
(Washington, D.C.: The National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1993), p. 22.
12 Kellie Jones, "In Their Own Image," Artforum (November, 1990), pp.
13 These posters were part of the Women's Work program launched by Liz Claiborne,
Inc. in 1991 and administered by the art advisory office Y-CORE. Weems was one
of five artists whose work was reproduced on over 200 San Francisco billboards
and bus shelters.
14 Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes,
Sweet Flypaper of Life (Washington,
D.C.: Howard University Press, 1984), book jacket.
* * *
From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 1995–1996
Operation: Activate, in collaboration with Social Studies 101,
Carrie Mae Weems talks about her work /
Carrie Mae Weems—Art:21
* * *
Carrie Mae Weems
Interviewed by Dream Hampton
In the under celebrated world of black
visual artists, Carrie Mae Weems is a legendary godmother. Her deep and vast
historical knowledge is peppered with personal, sometimes uproarious anecdotes.
As a lecturer she exposes her students at Harvard and other universities to a
century of work by abstract black artists who would’ve remained invisible in
their syllabi. For more than 25 years her photos and videos have been exhibited
at more than 50 galleries and museums. She often approaches her work as an
anthropologist, investigating racial, sexual, and cultural identities and
histories with her lens. Her work concerns itself with justice. Weems’s digital
work includes video collaborations with jazz pianist Geri Allen. A recent
project recreates iconic moments in the mid-20th century; she recasts the
assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to take a
second look at collective mourning and a photo series she’s currently creating
is an homage to the great black women singers like Nina Simone, Lena Horne and
Abbey Lincoln, who, she says, are “ascending into the ethos.” She’s as at home
with Nobel prize winning authors and grand dame divas as she is with other
visual artists. Her speaking voice is as muddy rich as any jazz singer’s, and
her stories dance.
So much of your work employs text. Who have you read that has changed you?
Carrie Mae Weems: The people who
move me in really, deeply profound ways are
Samuel Beckett and
Toni Morrison. I go
Waiting for Godot as a way of imagining all that is possible, of
dreaming. Toni Morrison reminds me of
Tolstoy and other Russian
writers more than other American writers. Russian writers have been thinking of
themselves as oppressed people for so long that they exist in this twilight
space, where struggle is just genetic.
Why are black abstract artists so absent from fine art history and scholarship?
Carrie Mae Weems: I’ve been thinking
of Black writers and visual artists in relationship to Spanish magic realists,
There are surreal spaces where African-American writers and artists often go but
it doesn’t get called that. We haven’t been talked about in terms of levels of
invention. To the extent our work isn’t discussed as being inventive, it’s often
dismissed. It gets dismissed as representational and thus derivative and third
tier. So I’ve been thinking a lot of the nature of invention and the creative
output of black artists. I’ve been thinking about new painters like
Mickalene Thomas, or people
like photographer Lorna Simpson,
Gary Simmons using chalk as a kind of erasure to speak to this ignoring of
our work. I can remember 20 years ago when
Wynton Marsalis started doing tours
across the country in churches giving lectures about
and Armstrong and
regular folk got to experience Wynton as a musician and an intellectual, we need
that! We need to connect people to this history of work and artists.
Dream Hampton: Which black
visual artists do you teach when working with art students?
Carrie Mae Weems: I begin with
Please tell me about your “Constructing
History a Requiem to Mark the Moments” 2008 photo series at the Jack
Shainman Gallery which included the photos “Veiled Women,” “Mourning” and “The
Endless Weeping of Women,” centralize women in these iconic historical
snapshots. What is that series about to you?
Carrie Mae Weems: There is am
important role that women play—as makers of history as much of witnesses to
history. The death of Malcolm [X], with Betty [Shabazz] and their daughters in
the front row at the Audubon. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, with Coretta
[Scott King] cloaked behind her black veil. I thought it might be important to
pay attention to a series of re-enactments of a period that was central in my
life and in American life, a time of cultural and personal shifting.
You are unabashed in advocating overtly for social and/or gender justice in your
Carrie Mae Weems: I can’t help
myself. The ongoing challenge is to be authentic to yourself no matter what. I
can’t make images like I did when I was 20, or 30, I’m almost 60. I’m not trying
to figure out who I am as an artist, I know who I am. I think that we grow into
what we are. That we are who we are from the beginning and our experiences
simply grow that same person we were as children. Right now I’m working on this
project there I’m looking and manipulating at photographs of
Nina Simone and
Lena Horne and these
seminal voices that have not only shaped my life but helped me make my life, I
take it as my responsibility to keep them alive and present in my own work and
all of these women had voices in the world.
Please tell me about a night that changed your life.
Carrie Mae Weems: I had a night in
Paris where I hung out with
Nina Simone and
Toni Morrison! At that
end of the night I felt like if I died right then, I’d be alright. The artist
Mary Lovelace O'Neal and I
happened to have residencies in Paris at the same time, so we decided to roam
the city. She gets an invitation to go to a dinner for Toni. That particular
year all of the French schools were reading Toni. At 6pm there’s the dinner for
her at the American Embassy. It’s October and she’s just lectured and it’s just
been announced she’s to win the Nobel. We walk into the Embassy and across this
palatial room there was Toni Morrison sitting alone. When she saw these sisters
dressed to the nines, she waved us over. I couldn’t believe the esteemed Toni
Morrison was sitting alone at a gathering meant to honor her! I grabbed a waiter
and ordered a bottle of champagne and within three minutes Mary Lovelace is in
her lap. The night was a total success, we shared stories and acted like we were
in our living room. Me and Mary were leaving, giddy, and a friend drives by,
sees me, stops, and says ‘Carrie Mae! What you doing in my neighborhood?’ I said
‘I’m going with you!’ and he says “Good, cuz I’m going to meet Nina Simone!” We
pile into cabs and we walk into this bar and there’s Nina, sitting alone. I
couldn’t believe in two separate corners of Paris, these two legendary women
were sitting alone in corners. I’d never met this woman before in my life and
the FIRST thing she said to me is “Girl, I wish I had someone to love me.” So I
sat there and I drank with Nina Simone and listened to her.
* * *
* * *
Sex at the Margins
Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
By Laura María Agustín
This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice.
"Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London
* * *
Age of Silver: Encounters with Great Photographers
By John Loengard
Age of Silver is iconic American photographer John Loengard’s ode to the art form to which he dedicated his life. Loengard, a longtime staff photographer and editor for LIFE magazine and other publications, spent years documenting modern life for the benefit of the American public. Over the years he trained his camera on dignitaries, artists, athletes, intellectuals, blue and whitecollar workers, urban and natural landscapes, manmade objects, and people of all types engaged in the act of living. In
Age of Silver, Loengard gathers his portraits of some of the most important photographers of the last half-century, including Annie Leibovitz, Ansel Adams, Man Ray, Richard Avedon, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and many, many others. Loengard caught them at home and in the studio; posed portraits and candid shots of the artists at work and at rest. Complimenting these revealing, expertly composed portraits are elegant photographs of the artists holding their favorite or most revered negatives. This extra dimension to the project offers an inside peek at the artistic process and is a stark reminder of the physicality of the photographic practice at a time before the current wave of digital dominance. There is no more honest or faithful reproduction of life existent in the world of image making than original, untouched silver negatives.
Far from an attempt to put forth a singular
definition of modern photographic practice, this
beautifully printed, duotone monograph instead presents
evidence of the unique vision and extremely personal
style of every artist pictured. Annie Leibovitz is quoted in her caption as once saying, “I am always perplexed when people say that a photograph has captured someone. A photograph is just a piece of them in a moment. It seems presumptuous to think you can get more than that.”
* * *
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
update 2 March 2012