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Carrie Mae Weems
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Wikipedia About Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems (born 1953) is an American photographer and artist. Her award-winning photographs, films, and videos have been displayed in over 50 exhibitions in the United States and abroad and focus on serious issues that face African Americans today, such as racism, gender relations, politics, and personal identity. She has said, “Let me say that my primary concern in art, as in politics, is with the status and place of Afro-Americans in our country.” Full Wikipedia Article

essay Carrie Mae Weems, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

In Carrie Mae Weems’ Untitled (1990), the viewer sees a triptych of black-and-white photographs showing a woman and a man seated at a kitchen table in a sparsely furnished room illuminated by overhead, interrogation-room lighting. The camera inches from left to right along the progression of the images, as the narrative develops from an emotional alienation to an intense stand-off to a tentative reconciliation between the two protagonists. Yet, despite the range of emotions expressed by the woman (played by the artist), her lover, with his eyes constantly affixed on a newspaper, remains seemingly detached. The triptych is part of a larger suite of twenty photographs, grouped in twos and threes and accompanied by thirteen text panels. The photographs are broken into chapters, relating the tale of a doomed romance that in the end leaves the woman alone, but not defeated. The text, spun out breathlessly with poetic, melancholic cadences in colloquial black English, tells another story involving a woman, a man, and their child from a third-person standpoint. The two narrative strands have no clear one-to-one correspondence but instead run parallel to each other, with a few moments of convergence.

Weems had a late start as an artist. She entered the photography program at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) at the age of twenty-seven and received her MFA at the University of California, San Diego. Both schools emphasized a rigorous conceptual, theoretical approach, and the photo-text method that would become Weems’ signature style resonates closely with the works of Allan Sekula and John Baldessari, both teachers at CalArts.1 In her earliest complete series, Family Pictures and Stories (1978–1984), begun while she was still a student, Weems intimately portrays bonds as well as pathologies within her own family, effectively complicating one-dimensional depictions of the “black family.” Through this extended engagement with both the medium of photography and her blood relations, she examines the problems inherent in documentary photography and its alleged capacity for impartial inquiry, particularly when applied to black subjects.

In subsequent series, Weems skillfully pried apart the mechanisms of signification that operate in photography and language. In the interstices that develop in her jolting and powerful juxtapositions of images and texts, she shows that these two most common means of knowledge and information are fraught with potential fallacies and violence, especially when the subject is race. The successive series of works—Ain’t Joking (1987–1988), American Icons (1988–1989), and Colored People (1989–1990)—explore ways that stereotypes propagate and reinforce themselves in multifarious dimensions, such as jokes and material culture. After more than a decade of making works in investigative modes, it was perhaps necessary for Weems to turn to a more familiar form that intentionally traffics in clichés. Unlike her earlier projects, Untitled is determinedly not about recuperating the vanished and misrepresented. Returning the power of embodiment back to its maker through self-portraiture, the work gives the viewer, as well as the artist herself, no less than a human drama—with no qualifiers.

  1. For discussions of the affinities between Weems’ work and those of other artists of her generation, see Andrea Kirsh, “Carrie Mae Weems: Issues in Black, White and Color,” 13–14, and Susan Fisher Sterling, “Signifying: Photographs and Texts in the Work of Carrie Mae Weems,” 26, both in Andrea Kirsh and Susan Fisher Sterling, eds., Carrie Mae Weems, exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1993).

Chong, Doryun. “Carrie Mae Weems.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center