Like so many African-American artists, Carrie Mae Weems' artistic career began at the Studio Museum in Harlem. In the mid-1970s, back when the museum occupied a loft “above a Kentucky Fried Chicken,” the museum hired established artists to teach local residents studio art. As Dawoud Bey tells it, on the first day of his class in walked a timid looking young woman with “big expressive eyes,” who asked him if he thought she could be a photographer.
Thirty odd years later, Weems is one of the most established American photographers working today. Her work, which has stretched outside of photography into sculpture, performance and video, has been almost single-mindedly focused on deconstructing the visual representation of race. Famous bodies of work have critiqued the history of ethnographic photography and examined the psychological impact of white beauty standards on black women.
In this BOMB Magazine interview from this past summer, conducted by her longtime friend, and one-time teacher, Dawoud Bey, Weems speaks about her sojourn in Rome as the recipient of the Prix de Rome and how she believes that despite the election of Barack Obama, black Americans continue to suffer from “invisibility” or a lack of representation in America’s cultural conscience.
The Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville is set to open a retrospective of Carrie Mae Weem’s artistic career in 2011.
Read the full interview from BOMB Magazine Issue 108, Summer 2009.
Dawoud Bey: We’re doing this interview while you’re in Europe, and of course I’m wondering what you’re working on there; I know you were in Rome previously, and now you’re in Seville. What’s going on over there?
Carrie Mae Weems: When I first decided to return to Rome, I wanted to relax a little bit because I was working very hard and I knew that I needed a mental break before I had a mental breakdown. I decided to leave the country and come to a place that I knew and felt comfortable in. I also wanted to finish some aspects of the work that began in Rome in 2006. So I’ve been standing in front of all these monuments and palazzos, thinking about questions of power. I’ve stayed because I’m working on an exhibition here that opens in October, and wanted to see the space and start preparing the work for the exhibition and the catalogue.
DB: Your work has had a very grand sweep since we first met in 1976. I would say you began in a kind of documentary mode, turning your camera on aspects of your surrounding world that allowed you to visually talk about the things that you were seeing and the things that had value or meaning for you. Your Family Pictures and Stories brought those observations closer to home in an autobiographical way and also began to bring a shift through the introduction of a textual voice into your work. Since that work you have deployed a range of strategies in realizing your ideas. I’m wondering if you could go back for a minute and just talk briefly about where you were in 1976 when you had decided that the camera was going to be your voice. What influenced you and who were your models at that point?
CMW: We were young. (laughter) It’s wonderful to have the benefit of hindsight. I think often about planning retrospectives—I’ve got one coming up this fall in Seville at the Contemporary and one at the Frist Center for Contemporary Art in Nashville in 2011. They give me the chance to look back over the work, over my history. The thing that surprises me most about the early work is that it’s not particularly different from the work I’m making now. Of course I was trying to find a unique voice, but beyond that, from the very beginning, I’ve been interested in the idea of power and the consequences of power; relationships are made and articulated through power. Another thing that’s interesting about the early work is that even though I’ve been engaged in the idea of autobiography, other ideas have been more important: the role of narrative, the social levels of humor, the deconstruction of documentary, the construction of history, the use of text, storytelling, performance, and the role of memory have all been more central to my thinking than autobiography. It’s assumed that autobiography is key, because I so often use myself, my own of experience—limited as it is at times—as the starting point. But I use myself simply as a vehicle for approaching the question of power, and following where that leads me to and through. It’s never about me; it’s always about something larger.
In Family Pictures and Stories, I was thinking not only of my family, but was trying to explore the movement of black families out of the South and into the North. My family becomes the representational vehicle that allows me to enter the larger discussion of race, class, and historical migration. So, the Family series operates in this way, as does the Kitchen Table series. I use my own constructed image as a vehicle for questioning ideas about the role of tradition, the nature of family, monogamy, polygamy, relationships between men and women, between women and their children, and between women and other women—underscoring the critical problems and the possible resolves. In one way or another, my work endlessly explodes the limits of tradition. I’m determined to find new models to live by. Aren’t you?
DB: Can you talk about some of the earlier relationships that shaped you? I know how important those early relationships were to my formation, and I think yours, too—to realize that there were indeed black people who were out there making this work. There had been black artists making work for a very long time, but of course they were largely invisible—we didn’t know but maybe one or two. So to discover a whole community of them to whom we had access was just amazing. It was like, We’re not invisible, there are others like us. We were in fact part of a long and rich tradition, and it’s not merely located in the past.
CMW: It’s fair to say that black folks operate under a cloud of invisibility—this too is part of the work, is indeed central to the work. The stuff that I’m doing right now has so much to do with this notion of invisibility. Even in the midst of the great social changes we’ve experienced just in the last year with the election of Barack Obama, for the most part African Americans and our lives remain invisible. Black people are to be turned away from, not turned toward—we bear the mark of Cain. It’s an aesthetic thing; blackness is an affront to the persistence of whiteness. It’s the reason that so little has been done to stop genocide in Africa.
This invisibility—this erasure out of the complex history of our life and time—is the greatest source of my longing. As you know, I’m a woman who yearns, who longs for. This is the key to me and to the work, and something which is rarely discussed in reviews or essays, which I also find remarkably disappointing. That there are so few images of African-American women circulating in popular culture or in fine art is disturbing; the pathology behind it is dangerous. I mean, we got a sistah in the White House, and yet mediated culture excludes us, denies us, erases us. But in the face of refusal, I insist on making work that includes us as part of the greater whole. Black experience is not really the main point; rather, complex, dimensional, human experience and social inclusion—even in the shit, muck, and mire—is the real point. This is evident in video works like In Love and in Trouble, Make Someone Happy, Mayflowers, and Constructing History. But again, these ideas are rarely discussed. Blackness seems to obliterate sound judgment, reason.
Read the full interview from BOMB Magazine Issue 108, Summer 2009.
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