By S. RENEE MITCHELL
Even without the cocktail-hour, cherry-red dress gently caressing her womanly curves, Carrie Mae Weems stood out in the massive crowd of museum devotees. Born and raised in Portland, she is a tall woman with full-mouthed laughter who fits playfully into her environment, but at the same time, stands out as unquestionably unique.
On Friday night, the Portland Art Museum was holding an opening reception in honor of Weems’ traveling exhibition of three decades of artistry that is intended to test our cultural interpretations. And the award-winning, world-traveling photographer moved her body with gracious intention, allowing her eyes to sieze hold of whatever was interesting in the moment.
“May I sign your book,” Weems asked someone in her periphery, nervously clutching Weems’ hard-cover retrospective, created in recognition of the exhibit, which will be displayed in Portland through May 19. Weems promptly signed her name in rounded letters across the bottom of the page. No other words or names were offered or necessary. Weems, after all, is considered one of the most important photographers of the last 25 years. Earlier this year, she was one of five artists awarded the State Department’s first Medal of Art by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“I’m not a great artist, but I am a pretty serious one,” noted Weems, during an hour-and-a-half, sold-out lecture in front of 700 people on Super Bowl Sunday. “I think that the kind of work that I’m doing absolutely needs to be seen because no one else is doing it, and they’re certainly not doing it in this way. That’s not so much to pat myself on the back, but rather to say that I’m beginning to understand, more and more, even in my humility, my role as an artist at this historical moment and what that role might mean.”
Weems’ art is embodied in large and small scale photographs, short videos and impressed onto thin muslin scrim. Some prints are in black and white, others are in pigmented, colorful tones—what Weems calls “candied morsels of color.” The two-floor exhibit predominantly showcases the faces and experiences of black people, but Weems asks that we not “reduce the work to a question of race.” Its underlying themes of gender, sensuality, family and community evoke interpretations that anyone can grasp within the universal language of humanity.
“When we say that all of the work is about race,” Weems notes, “it tends to really diminish what the work really is. And, certainly, for the most part, no one is really interested in dealing in that terrain right now.”
And yet, one cannot escape the challenges Weems offers, through her art, to confront and explore the relationship between power and class, which inevitably, and eventually, touches on issues of race. By unearthing, retelling, and re-framing cultural myths and racial prejudices, Weems assumes authority over the messaging of the power paradigm. Her solemn work also challenges the role that museums, architects, artists and historians have played in marginalizing the black experience.
“I love museums, but I do question them,” Weems said at her Sunday lecture. “The reality is that as far as I know, I can count the black women artists that I know on a hand and a half. And, I can count the ones who have had major exhibitions on one hand. So, I’m aware of the condition and the circumstance under which I live. I understand what’s really going on. I know that museums are changing. I know that museums that are not changing absolutely need to change.”
Portland Art Museum first featured a smaller exhibition of Weems work in 1994, as a partner with the National Museum of Women in the Arts. But, in this larger retrospective, the art’s direct messaging, particularly poignant in a dignified museum setting, is like manicured fingernails silently scraping the “Portland nice” chalkboard. In this city, we appear to embrace racial truths as long as they don’t make white people uncomfortable. But, Weems unflinchingly turns progressive tolerance on its belly and points out its open sores, and oozing pusscoating it with satire to make it more tolerable.
“What are the three things you can’t give a black person” asks a sign next to a black and white, photo of a middle-aged, black man sitting on his porch. Under a cap shading his face, his haunting eyes dare you to answer.
Lift up the flap on the wall next to the photograph. It reads: “A black eye, a fat lip and a job.”
Nervous laughter is soon met with hushed rebuke when eyes are directed to statistics about the disproportionate rate of unemployment in the black community. This Q&A exercise, part of Weems “Ain’t Jokin” collection, demonstrates how we are all accomplices to stereotypes and racial prejudice, whether as a participant, a consumer or a silent witness. And her images—which were often married to text in the vernacular she grew up hearing in Northeast Portland—can be mesmerizing, but they can also sock you in the gut with biting wit or provoke your consciousness long after you’ve moved on to the next portrait.
“Humor is just a very sophisticated form of seriousness,” Weems explains. “It is really a way that we socially construct one another and give one another license to critique and play with the other; if not undercut the other.”
Each of Weems’ photographs and videos carries a personal and political message, whether it contains the faces of her 300-plus Portland relatives, black girls reclining in a park with floral garlands in their hair, or her best-known and career-defining “Kitchen Table Series,” which reenacts scenes that reflect an everyday woman’s complicated narrative with a man who couldn’t deal “with the multitude of her being” and left her raising his child “though she took no deep pleasure in motherhood; it caused deflection from her own immediate desires, which pissed her off.”
Throughout her career, Weems has allowed her intuition to guide her, like a creative muse. So the idea of developing an entire body of work around a kitchen table, which is symbolic of connection and family, was something she says she “sort of stumbled upon” while she was in the throes of an entirely different project.
“It’s not as much about autobiography as much as it is an attempt to sort of describe women at certain times of their lives, undergoing certain changes and experiences, raising questions about monogamy, polygamy … playing with those ideas and sort of interrogating the family,” Weems explains.
From Weems’ early work “Real Facts by Real People” to her current series of pigmented ink prints “Slow Fade to Black,” Weems forces her audience to honor ignored and hidden truths. A thread of intention in her work is to claim space, particularly for people of color, in order to restore a sense of humanity that historically had been intentionally stripped away by whites.
On the first floor of the exhibit, Weems’ purposely blurred pictures of various black female performers, from Josephine Baker to Dorothy Dandridge to Nina Simone, to draw attention to our fading memory of African Americans’ cultural history, who are mostly excluded from our history books. So, Weems calls us out on it, forcing viewers to spend time making sense of pigmented shadows that will never come into focus.
“I wanted to pay homage to these amazing women who had been so important in the orchestration of my life,” Weems says about her “Slow Fade to Black” series. “When I go into my studio to work, I go in and there are a group of powerful voices, in literature and in music, that have saved my life. That I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have them to listen to, to ground me, to help me through the course of my day.”
Another haunting series of red-drenched portraits questions the representation of black people taken by early white photographers. The pictures are bookended by pictures of a royal Mangbetu woman tinted a somber blue, with the title of the collection “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried” etched onto glass.
These words are printed on a portrait of a man’s back shredded from numerous encounters with a slave master’s whip: “Black and tanned, your whipped wind of change howled low, blowing itself – HA – smack into the middle of Ellington’s orchestra. Billie heard it too & cried strange fruit tears.”
Weems’ aunt, Katie Booker, who lived across the street from Weems’ childhood home, says her niece would often recite poetry as a child, so it was natural that Weems would pair her pictures and video with text. “She sounds like she’s singing,” Booker says at the lecture. But, Weems credits her love of words to her uncle, Yusuf Farrakhan, who wrote her after Weems left Portland when she was a teenager.
“He wrote me one of the most beautiful letters that I have ever received in my life,” Weems says. “His use of language, his power of describing, was absolutely essential to me. And, though I use words very differently, it was then that I knew the power of writing could be so, so significant.”
Farrakhan says he had no idea his writing would, one day, be credited with having such a tremendous impact. “She talks about it,” he says, “but I don’t even know what was in the letter.”
To her closest relatives, Weems is just another member of her family, no more no less. Even though her first major series from 1978 to 1984 involved taking black and white pictures and recording audio of her extended family, they say they don’t have a lot of Weems’ pictures in their houses, nor do they treat as more worthy than anyone else.
“We’re all proud of her, the way she went out and explored and questioned things; that she’s not shaped or formed by popular opinion,” Farrakhan says. “We love Carrie Mae, but we love each other, too. We’re just a close family.”
Weems says she also absorbs inspiration from other professional artists who have honored their poetic interpretations of art, which, Weems notes, “has been absolutely essential to understanding what my possibilities were.” Those creative muses include Roy DeCarava, who was born in 1919 and was the first African American photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, and Eleanor Antin, a Jewish photographer and performance artist, who in the 1980s, painted herself black in order to create the fictional persona of Eleanora Antinova, a tragically overlooked, African American ballerina in Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, one of the most prestigious and influential dance troupes in the 1920s.
“The one thing I know at this point,” Weems says, “is you just don’t get any place in this world without somebody leading the way, without a mentor, without a guide, without support, without assistance, without love.”
In “Colored People,” Weems again uses pigmented tones to critique the black community’s artificial social hierarchy based on skin tones, in such photographs as “Blue Black Boy” or “Golden Yella Girl.“
“When I was growing up, nobody was ever black,” Weems explains. “People were like blue black. Or caramel. Or redbone. My grandfather called me ‘red.” Right? Then, he called me ‘fuzzy.’ Things were very qualified. There was never black or white. Things were very specific.”
Her “Sea Island Series” honors Gullah culture, which is considered “the most African of American cultures” and is found in communities off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. Weems honors the Gullah traditions through black and white pictures of ordinary objects that actually have a spiritual belief tied to them. She also lyrically recounts her journey to “find Africa” by placing words on ceramic plates, which is symbolic of the Gullah tradition to lay food and dishes at the grave of the recently deceased.
Several of Weems’ collections of prints feature her with her back toward the camera, a witness to history, wearing attire that represents a slave woman in Cuba or a domestic worker in New Orleans. In several photos from Rome or in front of various museums, she wears a simple, floor-length, black dress. Weems says the theme of those photos speak of the nature of resistance and of the presence of those invisible women—and ordinary individuals—who demanded racial equality.
“It’s sort of an important way that I kind of use my own self, my own body to sort of mark what a space might mean; what’s inside and what’s outside,” Weems says. “It’s very simple but also, I think, very eloquent, simultaneously. … It’s a way for me to understand architecture and what the experience of that architecture might mean to a body that is similar to my own.”
Weems launched her photography career after a college friend traded in her car to buy Weems a camera for her 21st birthday. Since then, she has had about 50 solo exhibitions at museums and galleries around the world. She has also received numerous awards and prizes, including the Skowhegan Medal for Photography in 2007, and honorary degrees, including one from Smith College in 2011. Weems has also been an artist-in-residence in Paris, Berlin and several colleges in New York.
Although not reflected in this exhibition, Weems has directly engaged her art in tackling community issues, such as gang violence in her Syracuse neighborhood. After reading a newspaper article about the death of a 2-year-old, for example, Weems created lawn signs that read: “A man does not become a man by killing another man”; “Safe Zone” posters that neighbors could post in their windows; billboard space that read: “We are responsible for the life of our community”; and giveaway matchbooks with covers that stated: “Contrary to popular belief, your life does matter.”
“I started thinking about the question of responsibility and how the neighborhood needed to respond…So, I just got up and I started making stuff,” Weems explains. “I made lots of different signs and I put them up all over my neighborhood. People came out of their houses to help me put these signs up around the neighborhood. It was really kind of amazing. And two years later, the signs are still up.”
Community organizers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit and other large urban areas are adopting pieces of her art-based outreach, Weems says. She also has engaged in other forms of community-based performance art, such as bumping into people to notice their reaction, or dressing like a clown in Harlem to sell hopes and dreams in a bottle for $19.99. She says she pays for these impromptu projects from her own pocket.
“It’s a very important way for me to engage my community into what was going on, to be actively involved in the community and then, of course, to ask for and to solicit—by virtue simply by being present—the support and the care of others who care about the same thing but actually didn’t know that they had the tools by which to change things themselves or engage the process of social change.”
From Portland, Weems’ exhibition travels to the Cleveland Museum of Art, Stanford University and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Weems credits the Portland Art Museum and curator Kathryn Delmez, from organizing sponsor the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, for having the “courage” to organize with such an ambitious retrospective.
“They have pulled out all the stops,” Weems notes. “I have shown in museums around the world and I don’t think that I have ever had an exhibition so beautifully organized, so beautifully presented, so eloquently mapped out. Absolutely extraordinary.”
In the last part of the exhibition on the second floor before visitors descend to the second half of the show on the ground floor, viewers are encouraged to wander through a pictorial history of ancient Assyrian steps, Mayan courtyards and crumbling Greek sculptures. Throughout her world travels, Weems developed an interest in architecture because, she says, it “tells you who belongs there.” The photos are printed on translucent muslin scrim that hangs from the ceiling and are spaced so viewers move into and through the art.
Weems has said: “I wanted to give the viewer permission to invade the work of art, to invade history, and thereby claim it as one’s own; to feel that one is a part of history and, therefore, one makes history.”
Eventually, though, the wanderers moving gracefully through the muslin are confronted with images of black men in striped prison jumpsuits, altering the solemn sanctuary with an inconvenient riddle: How does this fit in? What is the message here?
But, as with all of Weems’ art, it merely raises the questions. The answers are for us to figure out what they mean and how those answers contribute to the larger story of us.
S. Renee Mitchell, MBA, is an award-winning, former Metro columnist for The Oregonian, who was nominated—twice—for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. But, she left a promising, 25-year newspaper career to reinvent herself as a creative healing griot, who nurtures hope, empowerment and inspiration. Now, she is a full-time artist, playwright, writing instructor and social justice grant writer. She just created an anti-bullying and courage-building campaign based on her new children’s book, “The Awakening of Sharyn: A Shy & Brown SUPER Gyrl.” She also recently published her first novel, “Tangoing With Tornadoes: A Novel.” You can find out more about Renee on her website: www.ReneeMitchellSpeaks.org