Carrie Mae Weems’s inaugural show at the gallery highlights many of the artist’s most important bodies of work. Focusing on history, identity, and the structure of power, WITNESS traces Weems’s use of visual storytelling through photographs and video.
In the Kitchen Table series, Weems is shown at the emotional center of an imagined domestic world, in staged photographs that build a rich fictional narrative around her role as a lover, friend, and mother. In the well-known series, Weems cast herself in her photographs for the first time, playing the central character in scenes that depict intimate relationships and explore themes of tenderness and vulnerability.
The triptych Diana Portraits (Younger Woman), 1992, is one of several reappropriated photographs from Weems’s Sea Islands series, in which she documented traces of West African traditions in Gullah communities off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. In it, Weems reframes daguerreotypes of an enslaved woman, made in 1850 by Joseph T. Zealy as part of a commission from Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz in support of his racist scientific theories (Weems returned to the Zealy photographs in her later series, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried). In the introduction to the Sea Islands catalogue, William T. Dooley writes that with the portraits, Weems “frees these captured icons,” and “reinvents their purpose,” declaring them to be art objects in the gallery, and returning to her subjects the dignity and humanity they had been denied.
In the 1993 series Africa, Weems photographed structures in Ghana, Senegal and Mali, exploring the ways that gender and power are expressed in architecture, and recording vestiges of the slave trade. Using the language of folklore and storytelling, this series marked the beginning of Weems’s investigation into how buildings and spaces can embody dominance and control, a theme that Weems has returned to in later work.
“In Cuba, I wanted to be with a number of different kinds of people,” Weems has said about Dreaming In Cuba, a project in which she included herself in photographs depicting the daily lives of Cubans. In order to better understand the country, Weems spent time with workers in sugarcane fields and at the Wifredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art, among other locations, and used her own experience of labor in these places to develop the series.
Begun while in Italy as a recipient of the Joseph H. Hazen Rome Prize Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, Weems stands before monumental architecture and wide landscapes in her series Roaming. Positioning herself in the same place as the viewer, facing the monuments, Weems asks us to consider our own relationship to these historically charged locales.
In the Museum series, Weems photographed herself in front of art institutions around the world, once again dressed in black with her back to the camera. Weems has described her character as a witness whose presence invites the viewer to consider how power is inscribed in the architecture of these spaces. The series asks viewers to think about who is welcomed and represented in the museums she records.
In Blue Notes (2015-2016), the viewer sees grainy blue portraits of Black pop culture figures and artists whose faces are hidden by blocks of solid color. This concealment of identity suggests the ways in which society values Black cultural production, but often erases the influence of Black people’s cultural contributions to society.
Similarly, Slow Fade To Black comments on the invisibility of Black women in music, while also paying homage to their influence. The blurred portraits of icons such as Mahalia Jackson have an ethereal, ghostly quality, which speaks to the way that these Black women have vanished from communal recollection of pop culture, due to both the passage of time and racial prejudice.
Weems has often used performance marked by highly constructed artifice to explore how history is remembered and created. In Constructing History, Weems worked with college students to re-enact moments of social upheaval from the 1960s, building stage-like photographic tableaux.
In All the Boys and the video People of a Darker Hue, Weems commemorates unarmed Black men and women killed by police. The video pairs footage of buoyant city life and solemn protest with a stark, highly stylized vision of the endlessness of oppression.