The first major museum retrospective devoted to contemporary artist and photographer Carrie Mae Weemswidely acclaimed as one of todays most eloquent and respected interpreters of the African American experienceopened 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 Weemss 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 Weemss 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 Weemss 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 Weemss 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 mediumshe holds both a Bachelors and Masters Degree in Fine Artsshe 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.
Organized chronologically and thematically, the exhibition opens with Weemss earliest documentary photographic series, Family Pictures and Stories (197884), followed by the more politically overt Aint Jokin (198788) and American Icons (198889), 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-relianceall the while seated at her kitchen table. Another early landmark in Weemss career is From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (199596), 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 (199192), 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 equalitya headless Greek statue, the Palace of Versaillesappear 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 (200304), Weemss first major endeavor in the field of video, is a series of dreamlike vignettes on human relationshipsbetween 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 crazeamong both black and white womenfor ―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 pastfrom Josephine Baker to Marion Anderson to Nina Simone. Each image is purposefully out of focus, suggesting their fading presence in our collective cultural memory.