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First large-scale retrospcetive devoted to photographer Carrie Mae Weems opens at the Frist Center
Carrie Mae Weems. Afro-Chic (video still), 2010. DVD, 5 minutes, 30 seconds. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Carrie Mae Weems.

NASHVILLE, TENN.- The first major museum retrospective devoted to contemporary artist and photographer Carrie Mae Weems—widely acclaimed as one of today’s most eloquent and respected interpreters of the African American experience—opened on September 21, 2012, at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee. Over 200 photographs, installations, and videos, selected from more than fifteen museums and private collections, offer an unprecedented and compelling survey of Weems’s thirty-year involvement with issues of race, gender, and class.

Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video remains on view at the Frist Center until January 13, 2013; it will then tour nationally to the Portland Art Museum, Oregon; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts, Stanford University; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City.

Comprehensive in scope, the exhibition traces the evolution of Weems’s career from her early documentary and autobiographical photographic series to the more conceptual and philosophically complex works that have placed her in the forefront of contemporary art.

Virtually all of the major themes that have engaged Weems are represented, including personal narrative, such as Family Pictures and Stories and the famous Kitchen Table Series; the legacy and locales of slavery, including Sea Islands Series, Jefferson Suite, Slave Coast, and Dreaming in Cuba; contemporary perceptions of African Americans, as in Colored People and Afro-Chic; and the universal struggle for equality dealt with in works like Ritual and Reunion.

Frist Center Curator Kathryn Delmez, curator of the exhibition, states: ―Given Carrie Mae Weems’s stature and influence, it is astonishing that she has not been the subject of a major museum exhibition. Weems has created some of the most nuanced and deeply humane photographs of our time. It is with great pride that the Frist Center offers the American public this unprecedented opportunity to see the full range of Weems’s extraordinary achievement to date.”

Carrie Mae Weems
Weems was born in 1953, in Portland, Oregon. In her late teens she left home to pursue a career in modern dance in California, where she became a political and social activist. During the late 1970s, Weems began to pursue her interest in photography, first as a means of political and personal documentation, then increasingly as a form of intellectual and aesthetic expression. A consummate master of her medium—she holds both a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Fine Arts—she is also an avid student of history, political theory, literature, philosophy, and folklore, all of which she brings to bear in her work. While African Americans are her primary subject, Weems has stated that she wants ―people of color to stand for the human multitude‖ and for her work to resonate with audiences of all races.

Exhibition Overview
Organized chronologically and thematically, the exhibition opens with Weems’s earliest documentary photographic series, Family Pictures and Stories (1978–84), followed by the more politically overt Ain’t Jokin’ (1987–88) and American Icons (1988–89), in which she explores the perpetuation of African American stereotypes in mainstream culture. In the career-defining Kitchen Table Series (1990) Weems uses text and image to narrate the story of a modern black woman (portrayed by Weems herself) as she successively experiences love, loss, motherhood, despair, and, ultimately, self-reliance—all the while seated at her kitchen table. Another early landmark in Weems’s career is From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995–96), in which she uses photographs from pseudo-anthropological studies created in the past to justify racism and the exploitation of black Africans.

The exhibition also features several photographic series in which Weems explores a particular locale that resonates in the history of slavery. Among the earliest of these is the haunting Sea Islands Series (1991–92), devoted to the Gullah people, black communities of coastal South Carolina and Georgia whose semi-isolation fostered the survival of many African customs and beliefs. Also on view are images from Slave Coast, made during a 1993 trip to Africa, Dreaming in Cuba (2002), and The Louisiana Project (2003), which focuses on the racial complexities specific to that state. In many of these Weems herself appears as a ghostly presence, her back to the camera, as if bearing silent witness to the past.

The looming presence of the past is made even more immediate in a series of installations utilizing enlarged photographs printed on hanging muslin banners, enabling the visitor to literally walk through history In Ritual and Revolution (1998), for example, images evoking earlier struggles for equality—a headless Greek statue, the Palace of Versailles—appear like spectral apparitions on the semitransparent fabric. The installation is accompanied by a recording of Weems intoning both tragic and triumphant moments in human history.

Coming Up for Air (2003–04), Weems’s first major endeavor in the field of video, is a series of dreamlike vignettes on human relationships—between lovers (interracial and not), parents and children, and siblings. The exhibition also includes the videos Italian Dreams (2006), whose surreal and sexual content owes much to the films of Fellini, and Afro- Chic (2009), a wry commentary on the `60s craze—among both black and white women—for ―Afro” hairstyles à la Angela Davis.

The most recent work in the exhibition is the photographic series Slow Fade to Black (2010), featuring publicity photos of famous African American female performers of the past—from Josephine Baker to Marion Anderson to Nina Simone. Each image is purposefully out of focus, suggesting their fading presence in our collective cultural memory.

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