Weems, Carrie Mae

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Carrie Mae Weems


Photographer, artist

In a career spanning two decades, photographer Carrie Mae Weems has garnered impressive art world success. Her works—more than a dozen major series and hundreds of individual pieces—explore issues of racism, sexism, and oppression, and blend the boundaries of history, anthropology, and beauty. Using both fine photography and vernacular text, Weems shocks, seduces, and shames. "My responsibility as an artist is to work, to sing for my supper, to make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals; to beautify the mess of a messy world, to heal the sick and feed the helpless; to shout bravely from the rooftops and storm barricaded doors and voice the specificity of our historical moment," Weems said of her work, according to the Women in Photography International Web site. Her body of work is an eloquent testament to the belief that activism and beauty are not opposing forces. Her work has been shown and collected by prestigious institutions including The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), The Getty Museum, and the National Museum for Women in the Arts. She has received numerous awards including a National Endowment for the Arts and has been the subject of a documentary series on creativity.

Found Artistic Voice Through Photography, Folklore

Descended from Mississippi sharecroppers, Carrie Mae Weems was born in 1953 in Portland, Oregon, where her parents had migrated before she was born. Her father worked in tanning factory to support the family which included Weems's mother, brother, and sister. After graduating from high school, Weems moved to San Francisco where she hoped to study modern dance. Fate intervened in the form of a camera, a gift she received on her 21st birthday. Then working in a clothing factory, Weems first turned her lens on the activities of union organizers, documenting the labor unrest brewing in the late 1970s. Ardently political, she viewed the camera as a tool of activism. Weems was inspired to expand into art, however, after coming across a book of photographs by black photographers. She enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts and earned a bachelor's in fine arts in 1981.

Weems continued directly into graduate school at the University of California in San Diego, earning a master's degree in photography in 1984. Her thesis exhibition gave the first hint that Weems possessed a unique, powerful vision. Entitled "Family Pictures and Stories," the series of works merged black-and-white photography with text in order to explore the history of her sharecropping family and their migration Northward. In greater context, the series gave visual context to the legacy of thousands of black American families who migrated away from their Southern pasts to pursue dreams in the North. The unintended result, and a major factor motivating Weems, was the loss of their historical roots. The sharecropper was a direct descendent of the slave, another factor influencing the work. A reviewer writing for Artforum International noted, "For Weems, this slave past, with all its intimations of Africa, is central to black experience, and it forms a leitmotif running through her oeuvre."

Weems's incorporation of text with photography was inspired by The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a 1955 collaboration of two influential Harlem Renaissance artists, writer Langston Hughes and photographer Ray DeCarava. The book offered intimate portraits of life in Harlem accompanied by equally tender text. Weems was also influenced by the writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston who published black folklore and wrote fiction using black American dialect. Weems pursued this influence further, enrolling in the University of California at Berkeley where she earned a master's in folklore in 1987. That same year, she debuted "Ain't Jokin'," a series of portraits of proudly posed black subjects juxtaposed against the harsh text of racist jokes. Her next series, 1998's "American Icons," featured elegant still lives of ugly artifacts—household items and advertisements featuring racist stereotypes. Photos of Aunt Jemima salt-and-pepper shakers and Uncle Tom dolls illustrated, "how casually hate-based culture seeps into our homes and consciousnesses," noted a review in Art Papers.

Used Beautiful Imagery to Explore Ugly Realities

By the 1990s, Weems had begun to make a name for herself in the art world, working as a visiting professor or an artist-in-residence at art centers and schools throughout the country, as well as participating in dozens of group and solo exhibitions. However, her first major artistic acclaim came with her 1990 series, "Untitled (Kitchen Table Series)," a set of large-scale black-and-white photographs featuring a black woman (portrayed by Weems) and a kitchen table. Accompanied by text panels, the series evoked themes of love, desire, longing, and domesticity, revealing the complexities inherent in the everyday life of a black woman. "I was trying to respond to a number of issues," Weems told the on-line journal ChickenBones, "Woman's subjectivity, woman's capacity to revel in her body, and woman's construction of herself, and her own image." Received with almost unanimous acclaim, the series cemented Weems's status as an emerging artistic force.

Weems's 1991 series "Colored People" challenged color classifications with a collection of oversized Polaroid photos of black-skinned people of various shades further tinted by Weems's own pen. She assigned them names such as "Honey Colored Boy," "Golden Yella Girl," and "Blue Black Boy." Her 1992 "Sea Islands Series" explored the Gullah culture still evident on the islands located just off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. A stopping point for slave ships, the Sea Islands became home to African-American communities that maintained close ties with their African ancestry. The series evoked their rich cultural past through beautiful, moody photography and sparse, dialect-driven text printed on ceramic plates, each beginning with the phrase, "Went looking for Africa."

At a Glance …

Born in 1953, in Portland, OR. Education: California Institute of the Arts, BFA, art, 1981; University of California San Diego, MFA, photography, 1984; University of California Berkeley, MA, folklore, 1987.

Career: Photographer/Artist, 1978-; teacher, 1978-: University of California, Teaching Assistant, San Diego, CA, 1978; San Diego City College, Teacher, San Diego, CA, 1984; University of California Berkeley, Teaching Assistant, Berkeley, CA, 1987; Hampshire College, Assistant Professor, Amherst, MA, 1987-91; Hunter College, Visiting Professor, New York, NY, 1988-89; California College of Arts and Crafts, Assistant Professor, Oakland, CA, 1991; Williams College, Visiting Professor, Williamstown, MA, 2000; Harvard University, Visiting Professor, Cambridge, MA, 2001-; Visual Studies Workshop, Artist-in-Residence, Rochester, NY, 1986; Art Institute of Chicago, Artist-in-Residence, Chicago, IL, 1990; Rhode Island School of Design, Artist-in-Residence, Providence, RI, 1990; Atlantic Center for the Arts, Artist-in-Residence, New Smyrna, FL, 2001; Western Washington University, Artist-in-Residence, Bellingham, WA, 2001; Wellesley College, Artist-in-Residence, Wellesley, MA, 2001; Beacon Cultural Project, Artist-in-Residence, Beacon, NY, 2003; Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University, Commissioned Artist, New Orleans, LA, 2003.

Memberships: Women in Photography International, board member.

Awards: University of California, fellowship, 1981-85; California Arts Council, Arts Grant, 1983; Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, 1992; Ansel Adams Center, Photographer of the Year, 1994; National Endowment for the Arts, Visual Arts Grant, 1994; The Alpert Award for Visual Arts, 1996; Pollack Krasner Foundation, Photography Grant; Women in Photography International, Distinguished Photographers Award, 2005; Joseph H. Hazen Rome Prize Fellowship, 2005-06; Colgate University, Honorary Degree, 2007.

Addresses: Agent—Charles Guice Contemporary, Berkeley, CA, 94712. Web—www.charlesguice.com..

Enthusiastic response to Weems's work led to her first retrospective, an overview of her art from 1978 to 1992. Inaugurated at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 1993, the show marked the first time the museum featured a solo show by an African-American artist. Of the retrospective, the Washington Post wrote, "Over the course of this show we see Weems make photographic images of ever greater formal beauty and narrative intensity." The exhibition later traveled to eight contemporary musuems around the country including Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, and the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. Positive reviews in each place, further established Weems's national reputation. Topping off this success, Weems was awarded a prestigious National Endowment of the Arts grant in 1994. She was also named the 1994 Photographer of the Year by the San Francisco Ansel Adams Center.

Earned Artistic Acclaim and International Fame

Weems's subsequent work refined what Art in America called Weems's "come-hither look followed by a sucker punch." Through evocative photography, provocative text, and a variety of medium including etched glass, richly patterned wallpaper, flowing fabric banners, and seductive audio recordings, Weems continued to seduce the viewer with imagery before challenging them with cultural, racial, sexual, and historical inconsistencies and shame. The 1995 series "From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried" was created in response to a Getty Museum exhibit of photos of black Americans from the late 19th century. The 32 photographs, some posed by Weems, others adapted from the Getty collection, were tinted blood red and encased behind thick glass etched with harshness. One photo of a proud-faced black woman in a fine gown says, "They said you were the spitting image of evil."

In 1998, Weems's exhibition "Ritual and Revolution" traveled overseas to the Dak'art Biennale of Contemporary Art in Dakar, Senegal and to a private gallery in Berlin, Germany. The series, which also toured the United States, featured sheer banners suspended from the ceiling printed with photos of monuments and memorials, prisoners and protesters. Throughout the gallery, an audio loop of Weems's voice said "I was with you." The implication, according to the Boston Herald, was that "every monument to colonial victory shrouds an untold human story, of individual lives led in history's daunting shadow." In 1999, along with pop art star David Hockney and music legend Max Roach, Weems was featured in the PBS series Behind the Scenes, which explored the creative process. That same year, she was also the subject of a retrospective at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York. Featuring her works since 1992, the exhibition took the viewer on an evocative journey through what Art in America called "meditations on the politics of culture."

In 2000, Weems completed "The Hampton Project" in reaction to a series of photos from 1900 that documented the education of African Americans at Hampton University. Weems's work featured original photographs, printed banners, and audio loops juxtaposed against some of the photos from 1900, as well as images from modern history, including black students being hosed by white police officers in Alabama. She followed this with the 2002 series "Dreaming in Cuba" which offered photographic commentary on the attempt to live orderly domestic lives under the shadow of political and economic disorder. 2003's "The Louisiana Project," commemorating the Louisiana Purchase, featured the artist as muse leading the viewer through the complex history of Louisiana and its swamp-tangled roots of racism. By 2004,Weems had begun to incorporate video into her repertoire, debuting the films Coming Up for Air and May Days Long Forgotten. She told Art Papers that video represented, "an amazing shift that allows us to finally negotiate the space between museum culture and popular culture." For an artist who has successfully highlighted the nation's complex, often ugly socio-political history through the creation of seductive, achingly beautiful art, the move to video may well find Weems making the leap from art house activism to broad cultural impact.

Selected works

Solo exhibitions

Biennale of Contemporary Art, Galerie Nationale d'Art, Dakar, Senegal.

Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX.

International Center of Photography, New York, NY.

J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, CA.

Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.

Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA.

National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.

2nd Johannesburg Biennale, Africus Institute for Contemporary Art, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.



Art in America, June 1996, p. 103; May 1999, p. 122.

Art Papers, September/October 2004.

Artforum International, February 1993, p. 79.

Boston Herald, December 3, 1999, p. 11.

New York Times, December 22, 1995; May 22, 1998; August 11, 2000, p. E34.

Washington Post, January 7, 1993.


"Carrie Mae Weems," Charles Guice Contemporary,http://charlesguice.com/artists_cmw.html (July 16,2007).

"Carrie Mae Weems," ChickenBones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes,www.nathanielturner.com/carriemaeweems.htm (July 16, 2007).

"Carrie Mae Weems," PPOW Gallery,www.ppowgallery.com/artists/CarrieMaeWeems/bio.html (July 16, 2007).

"Distinguished Photographers 2005 Award," Women in Photography International,www.womeninphotography.org/Events-Exhibits/DistinguishedPhotog/CarrieMaeWeems_2005/Weems.html (July 16, 2007).