In January 2014, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presents Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, the first major New York museum retrospective devoted to this socially motivated artist. Weems has long been acclaimed as one of the most eloquent and respected interpreters of African American experiences, and she continues to be an important influence for many young artists today. Featuring more than 120 works-primarily photographs, but also texts, videos, and an audio recording-as well as a range of related educational programs, this comprehensive survey offers an opportunity to experience the full breadth of the artist’s oeuvre and gain new insight into her practice.
Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video is organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, Tennessee. The exhibition has been curated by Kathryn Delmez, the Frist Center, where it opened in September 2012. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presentation is organized by Jennifer Blessing, Senior Curator, Photography, with Susan Thompson, Assistant Curator. This exhibition is supported in part by The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. The Leadership Committee for Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video is also gratefully acknowledged for its support, including Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, Robert Menschel Vital Projects, and Jack Shainman Gallery, as well as Henry Buhl, Crystal R. McCrary and Raymond J. McGuire, Beth Rudin DeWoody, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Toby Devan Lewis, Louise and Gerald W. Puschel, and Miyoung Lee and Neil Simpkins. Additional funding is provided by the William Talbott Hillman Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts.
The work of Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953, Portland, Oregon) invites contemplation of issues surrounding race, gender, and class inequality. Over the past thirty years, Weems has used her art to bring to light the ignored or erased experiences of marginalized people. Her work proposes a multidimensional picture of history and humanity, intended to spur greater cultural awareness and compassion. Although her subjects are often African American, Weems wants “people of color to stand for the human multitudes” and for her art to resonate with audiences of all backgrounds.
Organized in a loosely chronological order throughout two of the museum’s Annex Levels, the exhibition begins on Level 2 with the series Family Pictures and Stories (1978-84). This series, like many of Weems’s early works, explores matters relating to contemporary black identity, highlighting individuals in social contexts-including in this case her own kin. Her landmark Kitchen Table Series (1990) employs text and photography to explore the range of women’s roles within a community, pointedly situating the photographs’ subject within a domestic setting. Selections from Weems’s Sea Islands Series (1991-92), Africa (1993), and Slave Coast (1993) demonstrate her ongoing interest in language and storytelling. These works, made during the artist’s travels to the titular locales, pair images with evocative vernacular texts or etymological investigations that trace English words to African roots. The artist’s practice emphasizes the role of both spoken and written narrative, reflecting her graduate studies in folklore.
Weems often appropriates words and images, re-presenting them to viewers as biting reminders of the persistence of bigoted attitudes in the United States. Her renowned series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995-96), presented on Annex Level 4, layers new text over found historical imagery to critique and lament prejudiced attitudes toward African Americans throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A yearning to investigate the underlying causes and effects of racism, slavery, and imperialism has spurred Weems to travel widely throughout the United States, Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean. During extended visits to these places, depicted in series such as Dreaming in Cuba (2002), The Louisiana Project (2003), and Roaming (2006), all represented in the exhibition, she looks to the surrounding land and architecture in order to foster communion with inhabitants past and present.
Video is a natural extension of Weems’s narrative photographic practice, also providing an opportunity for the artist to include music in her work. Although she worked in film during her undergraduate years at the California Institute of the Arts, Weems’s first major endeavor in the medium came in 2003-04 with Coming Up for Air, a work comprised of series of poetic vignettes that will be screened in the New Media Theater in the Guggenheim’s Sackler Center for Arts Education. Other video works, including Italian Dreams (2006), Afro Chic (2009), and Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment (2008) will be integrated into the exhibition near related photographs.
Born in Portland, Oregon in 1953, Weems earned an MFA from the University of California, San Diego in 1984. Weems has been featured in solo exhibitions organized by institutions including the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (1991); New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (1991); National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC (1993); Museum of Modern Art, New York (1995); Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris, New York (1998); Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA (2000); and Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo, Seville (2010). Weems’s work has also been included in several important international exhibitions, including the Whitney Biennial (1991); Black Male, Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1994); 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, Africus Institute of Contemporary Art, Johannesburg, South Africa (1997); Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, International Center of Photography, New York (2003); Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010); La Triennale, Intense Proximity, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2012), among many others.
Weems has been celebrated with numerous awards and honors, including a Smithsonian Fellowship (1987); Louis Comfort Tiffany Award (1992); National Endowment for the Arts Visual Arts Grant (1994–95); The May Ingraham Bunting Award, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA (1995); The Alpert Award for Visual Arts (1996); Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in Photography (2002); Joseph H. Hazen Rome Prize Fellowship (2005–06); Honorary Degree from Colgate University, Hamilton, NY (2007); Skowhegan Medal for Photography, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Skowhegan, ME (2007); Anonymous Was a Woman Foundation, New York (2007); Honorary Doctorate, Smith College, Northampton, MA (2011); Medal of Arts award from the U. S. State Department (2012); Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Honoree (2013); and National Academician (2013). In addition, Weems was recently awarded a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.