Meet the Season 5 Artist: Carrie Mae Weems

The above video is excerpted from the Season 5 episode Compassion, premiering on Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 10pm (ET) on PBS (check local listings). Compassion features three artists — William Kentridge, Doris Salcedo, and Carrie Mae Weems — whose works explore conscience and the possibility of understanding and reconciling past and present, while exposing injustice and expressing tolerance for others.

Who is Carrie Mae Weems and what does she have to say about compassion?

Carrie Mae Weems was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1953; she lives and works in Syracuse, New York. With the pitch and timbre of an accomplished storyteller, Carrie Mae Weems uses colloquial forms—jokes, songs, rebukes—in photographic series that scrutinize subjectivity and expose pernicious stereotypes. Weems’s vibrant explorations of photography, video, and verse breathe new life into traditional narrative forms—social documentary, tableaux, self-portrait, and oral history. Eliciting epic contexts from individually framed moments, Weems debunks racist and sexist labels, examines the relationship between power and aesthetics, and uses personal biography to articulate broader truths. Whether adapting or appropriating archival images, restaging famous news photographs, or creating altogether new scenes, she traces an indirect history of the depiction of African Americans for more than a century.

On the subject of compassion in art, Weems says about her own life and process (in the forthcoming Season 5 book):

There are ideas about compassion—what you sacrifice for compassion, what you give up, what you choose not to live with so that you can express that. But we all sacrifice something for our compassion in some way. We’re giving up something so that something else larger can happen, so that something bigger than you can take place. Sometimes we sacrifice our families. Sometimes we sacrifice other levels of interpersonal communication so that we have that larger relationship with questions that move and shape the world.

And so (and I don’t think that I’m being naïve or sentimental or dramatic about it) I think that I’ve sacrificed an enormous amount of interpersonal comfort to pursue aspects of compassion, to pursue them, to look at them and to say, “Yes, I will step up to this. I want this too. And if I want this in this time, in this moment, then certain things have to be sacrificed (because I don’t know how to do it all).” Sometimes you sacrifice too much. You find yourself out on a limb and not knowing really quite how to get back down the tree. But it’s the space that you’re in because you have taken the risk. I’m not unaware of the sacrifices and, at times, whom your compassion hurts. It’s not all moving in one direction. It’s complicated, as the work is complicated.

What happens in Weems’s segment in Compassion this October?

“Narrative and storytelling is in the blood,” declares Carrie Mae Weems, “I really needed to understand something about the nature of my own being, and my own voice, and really where I come from.” Through a mixture of archival personal photos and the artist’s first major photo-documentary series, Family Pictures and Stories (1978-84), Weems takes the viewer on a personal journey through her childhood in 1950s Portland, Oregon, the outward discrimination towards her mixed-race family (Jewish, Native American, and African American), and her own radicalization in the 1960s when she moved to San Francisco at the age of sixteen to dance with choreographer Anna Halprin.

Transitioning from the private experiences of her immediate family to a broader examination of “the history of black subjects in photography,” Weems appropriated a series of famous images—from early daguerreotypes to pictures by her contemporaries—to assess “how the black body had been used in photography.” A suite of thirty blood red images with superimposed text, etched into glass, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995) is a haunting lamentation on the stereotypes that photography has propagated post Civil War. Unnerving and instantly controversial, Weems’s use of appropriated images of anonymous slaves came under fire from Harvard University, which owns some of the original pictures. “I think that I don’t have really a legal case, but,” says Weems, pointing out the inherent irony between the legacy of slavery and a continued desire to control the use of images of black people, “maybe I have a moral case that could be made that might be really useful to carry out in public.”

Continually innovating, Weems has since adopted new strategies of picture making by reconstructing and at times reimagining instantly recognizable images and moments from recent memory. “I realized that we were at this incredible moment,” says Weems, on the eve of the historic 2008 U.S. elections, “and that it would be important to look at some things that happened.” Focusing around the year 1968, which marks the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the series Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment (2008) enlisted students at the Savannah College of Art and Design in a series of photographic and video tableaux on a theatrical sound stage. “If I didn’t look at all of that trauma and the sadness of the last forty years,” confesses Weems, “then I really wasn’t worth my salt.” Debuted at the 20th National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, Georgia, the segment also features the experiences of two students in creating the project: Gyun Hur who plays busboy Juan Romero, witness to Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination (1968), emulating the photo by Boris Yaro; and Ashley C. Vieira who plays runaway Mary Ann Vecchio, witness to the Kent State shootings (1970), emulating the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by John Filo.

Discussing her motivation for continuing the project after the 2008 elections, Weems ascertains that “in one moment there was an enormous shift in the American imagination—African Americans who had never considered this to be home, this to be a place that represented them—suddenly said ‘my country’ and ‘my president’.” The segment follows the artist back to her home in Syracuse, New York, where she is seen staging the second chapter of the project in an ornate hotel ballroom, focusing on the drama of the presidential campaign with a cast of political characters that include President Barack Obama as well as Senator John McCain, Joe the Plumber, and a group of models in bathing suits as Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Carrie Mae Weems. "Mourning," 2009. Archival pigment print, 61 x 51 inches. Copyright Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Carrie Mae Weems. "Mourning," 2009. Archival pigment print, 61 x 51 inches. Copyright Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

What else has Carrie Mae Weems done?

Weems earned a BFA from the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia (1981), and an MFA from the University of California, San Diego (1984), continuing her studies in the Graduate Program in Folklore at the University of  California, Berkeley (1984-87). She has received  honorary degrees from Colgate University, New York (2007) and California  College of the Arts, Oakland (2001). Awards include the Anonymous Was a Woman Award (2007); Skowhegan Medal for Photography (2007); Rome Prize Fellowship (2006); and the Pollack Krasner Foundation Grant in Photography (2002), among others. Weems’s work has appeared in major exhibitions at Savannah College of Art and Design (2008); W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University (2007); Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown (2000); and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1998), among others. Carrie Mae Weems lives and works in Syracuse, New York.

Where can I see more of her work between now and the Art21 premiere this October?

Carrie Mae Weems is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, and by Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco. A major exhibition of her work opens October 2009 at the Centro Adaluz de Arte Contemporaneo, CAAC in Seville, Spain. In addition, her work is included in the group exhibitions So Close Yet So Far Away as part of the International Incheon Women Artists’ Biennial, Incheon, South Korea in August; and the show Colour Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today through September 13 at Tate Liverpool, England (along with fellow Art21 artists John Baldessari, Mike Kelley, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Serra).

What’s your take on Carrie Mae Weems’s inclusion in Season 5?

Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below!