Although the times have changed and certain aspects of the racial question were amended and formed to lawfully protect any colored person as they do the white one, the current atmosphere in the United States regarding this topic is not bright at all.
After centuries of exploitation and segregation, the Black artists from the 1960s started creating daring socially-engaged works, most often expressed through photography and largely thanks to the empowerment coming from the Civil Rights movement. In the meantime, the state-imposed hatred and organized violence diminished, and the generations of the 1980s had examples to look up to. Their position was even more politically articulated since it coincided with the new discourse based on the historical critique of colonialism.
During that time appeared the extraordinary photographer Carrie Mae Weems, who managed to establish a successful photographic career based primarily on the examinations of the Black identity and the socio-political implications coming from it. By combining text, images, fabric, audio, digital images, installation and video and engaging herself as a subject and a performer, the artist made a striking and recognizable body of work evocative of the themes concerning power, class, race, and gender. Her generally black-and-white photographs presented in series show the artist’s critically oriented art aimed to unravel inequalities and all segments of humanity.
Currently on display at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg (until 7 October 2019) is Weems’ sort of a retrospective titled Over Time. It includes some of her most exhibited series which encapsulate her focus and the way she smoothly dissects the past to speak about the present.
To bring you closer to the upcoming exhibition, we decided to feature seven astonishing photo series made by Weems throughout her more than a two-decades-long career, with a special focus on the more recent ones.
Editors’ Tip:Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series
Kitchen Table Series is the first publication dedicated solely to this early and important body of work by the American artist Carrie Mae Weems. The 20 photographs and 14 text panels that make up Kitchen Table Series tell a story of one woman’s life, as conducted in the intimate setting of her kitchen. The kitchen, one of the primary spaces of domesticity and the traditional domain of women, frames her story, revealing to us her relationships―with lovers, children, friends―and her own sense of self, in her varying projections of strength, vulnerability, aloofness, tenderness and solitude.
Featured images: Carrie Mae Weems - Slow Fade to Black, Set II, 2009-10. Inkjet on paper (a group of 17 images), 13 x 10 1/8 inches (each framed). Edition of 3; Carrie Mae Weems - Color Real and Imagined, 2014. Archival pigment with silkscreened color blocks. Work: 76.2 x 116.8 cm. Frame: 100 x 140 x 4 cm. Edition of 10. All images courtesy Goodman Gallery.
The first series on our list was made by the artist in 1991 and it consists of fifteen Polaroid photographs accompanied by text. Titled And 22 Million Very Tired and Very Angry People, it reflects a mechanism of repression of the Black community through the display of everyday objects and written explanations of the same. This particular constellation of images narrates the history in simplistic, yet symbolically sharp manner, subscribing or rather reminding the viewer that some things shouldn’t be forgotten.
Featured images: Carrie Mae Weems - And 22 Million Very Tired and Very Angry People (A Little Black Magic), 1991. Polaroid Print, 30 x 25 x 1 1/2 inches (framed); And 22 Million Very Tired and Very Angry People (An Armed Man), 1991. Polaroid Print, 30 x 25 x 1 1/2 inches (framed); And 22 Million Very Tired and Very Angry People (A Hot Day), 1991. Polaroid Print, 30 x 25 x 1 1/2 inches (framed).
Museum series is an ongoing project that Weems launched in 2005. These images are practically self-portraits of the photographer standing in front of major cultural institutions with her back facing the camera. By positioning herself almost like a sculpture, she calls the viewer to look at the institutions with her eyes; eyes of Black women whose personal and collective histories were traditionally ignored by these powerful institutions which mostly collected and exhibited works made by white European men.
Featured images: Carrie Mae Weems - The British Museum, 2006-present. Digital c-print, 73 1/2 x 61 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches (framed), 50 1/4 x 50 inches (image size). Edition of 5; The Louvre, 2006. Digital c-print, 73 x 61 x 2 1/2 inches (framed). Edition of 5.
For the making of the series called Constructing History in 2008, Weems collaborated with students from the Savannah College of Art and Design to reenact the iconic photographs associated with the history of the Afro American community (such as the assassination of Martin Luther King). With these images, the artist considered the role photography has in shaping our imaginings and our relationship to history. Weems stated:
Through the act of performance, with our own bodies, we are allowed to experience and connect the historical past to the present - to the now, to the moment. By inhabiting the moment, we live the experience; we stand in the shadows of others and come to know firsthand what is often only imagined, lost, forgotten.
Featured image: Carrie Mae Weems - The Assassination of Medgar, Malcolm and Martin, 2008. Archival pigment print, 61 1/16 x 51 1/5 x 1 3/4 inches (framed). Edition of 5; The First Major Blow, 2008. Archival pigment print, 60 7/8 x 50 7/8 x 2 1/4 inches (framed). Edition of 5.
Similarly to the previous series, Slow Fade to Black also reexamines history. The images of iconic women of color from past and present such as Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Leontyne Price, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, Shirley Bassey, Ella Fitzgerald, Abbey Lincoln, Eartha Kitt, Koko Taylor, and Katherine Dunham are blurred, so that the lack of recognition for their deeds is underlined; the series enable the visibility of these important individuals who are often sidelined.
Featured image: Carrie Mae Weems - Slow Fade to Black, Set II, 2009-10. Inkjet on paper (a group of 17 images), 13 x 10 1/8 inches (each framed). Edition of 3.
Blue Notes made by Weems in 2014 are closely affiliated with Color Real and Imagined and the aforementioned Slow Fade to Black series. The faces of blurred figures are additionally obscured with blocks of color to accentuate the metaphor of the "people living behind walls of color that block us from knowing who they are, from accessing them, from equity, from equal rights."
Featured image: Carrie Mae Weems - Blue Notes, 2014. Archival inkjet print with silkscreened color blocks. Paper: 83.8 x 63.5 cm. Image: 73.7 x 53.3 cm. Frame: 99.1 x 78.7 x 5.1 cm. Edition of 5; Blue Notes (Claudia Lennear #1), 2014. Archival inkjet print with silkscreened color blocks. Paper: 83.8 x 63.5 cm. Image: 73.7 x 53.3 cm. Frame: 99.1 x 78.7 x 5.1 cm. Edition of 5.
The Scenes and Takes series was made by Carrie Mae Weems in 2016 and it deals further with the lack of women of color in Hollywood and mainstream cinema. Each photograph is centered on the figures of women wearing long black dresses present on the sets of contemporary television productions that feature Black women and are written by Black writers and producers.
The text accompanying the shots functions as a small scenario with a list of credits evoking the presence of male authority. In general, these series aim to dissect the hierarchical nature of the contemporary televisions productions despite their emancipatory potentials
Featured images: Carrie Mae Weems - Scenes & Takes (In the Carefully Construction Fusion), 2016. Laminated pigment print mounted on board, screen printed text on gesso board. In two parts: image panel 60 x 84 inches. Edition of 5; Scenes & Takes (The Bad and the Beautiful), 2016. Laminated pigment print mounted on board, screen printed text on gesso board. In two parts: image panel 60 x 84 inches, text panel 30 x 24 inches. Edition of 5.
The last series on our top list is called All the Boys and was made the same year as the previous one. These images refer directly to the police brutality over black people in America, and so they point out the urgent attention to the systematic oppression and at end racism. The same method of blurring the faces is used for this series as well; although there aren’t apparent signs of violence like bruises, scars, and broken limbs, due to the omnipresent racist rhetoric in public space the portrayed figures are perceived as criminals.
Finally, the tragic reality is even more underlined with the police reports accompanying blurred portraits, along with another component of the series which is the video work People of a Darker Hue.
Featured image: Carrie Mae Weems - All the Boys (Blocked 1), 2016. Archival pigment print and silkscreened panel mounted on gesso board diptych, 31 1/4 x 25 1/4 x 2 1/8 inches (each framed). Edition of 5.