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Carrie Mae Weems, Art of an Innovative Storyteller Disrupting Oppressive Narratives Through Photography

Artwork by Carrie Mae Weems titled 'Ritual and Revolution' featuring 11 digital photographs on muslin
Carrie Mae Weems, Ritual and Revolution, 1998. Courtesy of Galerie Barbara Thumm

By Charlotte Lydia Stace

“Art is the one place we all turn to for solace.”

Carrie Mae Weems

One of the most celebrated photographers of our time, American born artist Carrie Mae Weems is concerned with the historical complexities of race, gender, class and identity, offering a powerful and thought-provoking commentary on social injustice and inequality. Working predominantly with photography, installations and video, she has been one of the major contributors to feminist art, questioning, through her work and activism, systems of power and oppression.

After receiving critical acclaim for her early photographic project, The Kitchen Table Series in the early 1990s, she has gone on to become one of the most influential American artists in the contemporary world of art and her projects have inspired and significantly influenced a generation of artists.

Biography of Carrie Mae Weems

Born in Portland on April 20th, 1953, Weems took part in dance and street theatre from a young age. At 16, she fell pregnant with her only daughter, Faith, and left her family home to move to San Francisco where she would pursue her dreams of becoming a dancer. It wasn’t in fact until 1978 that she got hold of a camera and began her first major photographic series entitled Family Pictures and Stories, which took 5 years to complete. She obtained a BA from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, and later an MFA at the University of California, San Diego, and finally enrolled in a folklore studies program at the University of California, Berkeley, which sparked her interest in the observation methods used in social sciences.

Early work

Strongly influenced by the work of African American photographers who were working to document the black experience within the United States, Weems set out to complete a number of photographic series. Besides Family Pictures and Stories (1983), some of her major series of the time were Ain’t Jokin’ (1988), American Icons (1989) and The Kitchen Table Series (1990), which brought her to international attention. Each of her series focused heavily on racism, sexism, and the representation of lived African American experience – a subject historically hidden from the mainstream popular media and the art canon. Throughout these years, her photographic work gave a voice to hidden figures and marginalised groups, while also creating room for other Black female artists to produce art and step into the contemporary art scene.

2000 to today 

During the early 2000s, Weems worked on a number of photographic projects including Louisiana Project (2003), Museums (2006), Constructing History (2008), African Jewels (2009), and Blue Notes (2015). She has also moved into experimenting with new forms of art in addition to photography.

Awards and representation

Weems has received countless fellowships, grants and awards, and has exhibited internationally in some of the most prominent art museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, MoMA, and Tate. She has also taught photography to students at several colleges across the US, including the Syracuse University in New York. Her work is held in public and private collections around the world and she has been represented by Jack Shainman Gallery since 2008. She is the first African-American woman to ever have been given a solo exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, with her 30-year retrospective in 2014.

Most Famous Art Projects

A very prolific and radically innovative visual storyteller, Carrie Mae Weems’ artistic practice complements photography with a range of different media including text, fabric, audio, video, digital images, and installations, and articulates into a number of cohesive bodies of work that demand reconsideration of predominant narratives.

Some of her most famous photographic projects include the following. 

Family Pictures and Stories, 1984

Weems’ Family Pictures and Stories took the artist 5 years to complete. Prompted by the sadly infamous Moynihan report that had cited weak family bonds as the cause of the “deterioration” of African-American life and communities, the artist recorded – both visually and verbally – the everyday life of her family with an almost documentary approach, resulting in a loving portrait of a genuinely imperfect and deeply caring family. The work was inspired by the writing of author and anthropologist Zora Neale and the photographs of Roy DeCarava.

Kitchen Table Series, 1990 

Carrie Mae Weems’ Kitchen Table Series presents a series of 20 staged scenes set around the artist’s kitchen table with a single light source. The idea behind this staged fictional narrative, where the artist has introduced herself directly into the picture, was to explore black female identity, family relationships, and commonplaces on womanhood that pigeonhole women in roles such as lovers, parents, friends, and workers. These powerful images put Weems on the map as one of the most innovative photographers of the 20th century.

Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Woman Feeding Bird), The Kitchen Table Series, 1989-90

From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 1996

From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried is regarded as one of the fullest development of Weems’ investigation of racism. The work is composed of 33 separate prints, all tinted red blood, gathered from an archive of 1850 daguerreotypes portraying African-born black slaves in South Carolina and other sources. Most of the images were commissioned by the Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz to support his theory of racial inferiority. The prints are overlaid with words from a now iconic essay titled, in fact, ‘From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried’.

From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried | Carrie Mae Weems | UNIQLO ArtSpeaks

Ritual and Revolution, 1998

Ritual and Revolution is one of Weems’ earliest immersive installations. Composed of diaphanous printed fabric banners organized in a semi-architectural formation and accompanied by a poetic audio track, the work investigates the human struggle for equality and justice, including historical references to events such as the Middle Passage, the French Revolution, and World War II.

Museum, 2006

The series Museum shows the artist standing in front of major cultural institutions with her back to the camera, as a way to question historical traditions of exhibition and collecting.

Constructing History, 2008

In Constructing History, Weems recreated moments from the history of the civil rights movement, from the mourning of Martin Luther King to the assassinations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Malcolm X. Students, who were not yet born at the time of these events, play this series of tragic tableaux from American history as a reminder of the power of remembrance, and also as an encouragement to look with a fresh perspective at imagery that are so rooted in the collective memory.

Slow Fade to Black, 2010

For this project, Weems set out to put Black women in the spotlight. The series features photographs, paintings, videos and audio recordings of Black female artists captured at the height of their success in the 20th century. Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, and Katherine Dunham are portrayed among others. Although some of them hold their iconic status today, others remained relatively unknown. While celebrating their legacy, a marked blurred effect symbolizes how they have been forgotten over time and often overshadowed by their white and male counterparts.

The Shape of Things, 2021

Carrie Mae Weems’ The Shape of Things at Park Avenue Armory is one of the artist’s largest works to date. This installation, film and performance-based show’s objective is to shed light on the issue of violence, injustice and racism in the US. With a marked retrospective nature, the work brings together a number of pieces from across Weems’ career to remind viewers that what is being experienced in the political and social landscape is not new, and that the fight for equality must continue.

Installation view of The Shape of Things by Carrie Mae Weems at Park Avenue Armory.
Carrie Mae Weems, The Shape of Things, 2021, Park Avenue Armory. 

Relevant sources to learn more

Read more on Artland Magazine
The Visual Activism of Zanele Muholi

Other relevant sources
Explore works by Carrie Mae Weems for sale on Artland

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