The work of conceptual photographer Carrie Mae Weems consists of photographs and videos addressing inequities of race, gender, and social class. Weems is known for her image-and-text works in which she tells visual and verbal stories of domestic life in a picture-book style. Weens’s images illustrate what the viewer is reading. Her photos are often oddly lit or blurred black-and-white pictures with text, one of which reads, “I sided with men so long I forgot women had a side.”
Weems studied at Cal Arts and received her B.A. at age 28. She completed her M.F.A. at U.C. San Diego and studied folklore in U.C. Berkeley’s graduate program. She studied modern dance and worked as a labor organizer before she became an artist. She taught at Hampshire College in Massachusetts in the late 1980s.
She was influenced by the unsentimental pictures of Harlem, taken by photographer Roy De Carava and tied her dance background to the role of the body in her own photographs. In the 1980s, Weems turned away from documentary photography to create staged representations, which incorporated texts and narratives that dealt with racism.
Her “Family Pictures and Stories” 1978-1984 consisted of gelatin silver prints and audio, featuring her own Oregon family. This series was intended to refute the Moynihan Report, which blamed “the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society” on a weak family structure. Weems incorporated candid photographs of her family with written texts and audio recordings that documented her family’s history. She created a deeply felt and realistic account of Black family life in the United States.
Coupling her sardonic wit with the direct, uncompromising gaze of her subjects, Weems eviscerated the racism embedded in jokes made at the expense of people of color. Her Gelatin silver print photograph “Mirror, Mirror” 1987-1988 was part of the “Ain’t Jokin Series,” one of her earliest bodies of photo-text works. “Mirror, Mirror” pictures a young Black woman looking into a mirror with an older white face looking back at her. It reads: “LOOKING INTO THE MIRROR, THE BLACK WOMAN ASKED, ‘MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL, WHO’S THE FINEST OF THEM ALL?’ THE MIRROR SAYS, ‘SNOW WHITE YOU BLACK BITCH, AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT!!!’”
Weems’s 1989-1990 “Kitchen Table Series” combined panels of texts and images to tell the story of a Black woman’s life. The narrative explored the life cycle of a romance and consisted of nearly two dozen photographs and accompanying text panels. In one of the images a young girl and the woman, who is her mother, are looking in matching mirrors while applying lipstick. Weems thought that the young girl who modeled for this picture “was a perfect echo of me as a young person.” This series subtly attacked sexism which excluded Black women from popular media.
In the “Sea Island Series,” 1991-1992, Weems incorporated folkloric language, arranged in an installation which included plates with printed text. Her “Africa Series,” 1993-1994, investigated the ancient mud-walled architecture of Ojenne in Mali in her quest for an understanding of a proslavery state of grace. Her 1995 series “From Here I Saw What Happened, and I Cried” totaled 65 pieces. It was based on a series of 19th and early 20th Century daguerrotypes of slaves that showed the atrocities they suffered. Weems rephotographed these images and printed them through colored filters, providing “a voice to a subject that historically has had no voice.”
Her austere photograph “String Theory” 2016 posed a Mies van der Rohe leather daybed against a wall of empty rectangles of missing pictures or paintings, delineated by thin black cords. Her work invited awareness of the power of institutions to affirm or reject certain histories and the repercussions of those choices.
In her ‘The Museum Series,” 2005-2006, Weems, dressed in black as a spectral figure with her back facing the camera, was posed standing outside world famous museums: the Louvre, the Pergamon, and the Tate Modern. She wanted viewers to think about the people who had aways been welcomed into these spaces and the people who were excluded. Viewers were to recognize the fact that the works of Black artists were never shown in major museums – until recently.
Weems lives in Brooklyn, New York and continues to make art which provides social commentary, especially concerning the lives of Black women in America. She has received many awards and honors including the MacArthur Fellow Genius Award in 2013; a 2015 W.E.B. DuBois Medal from Harvard University; and an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Syracuse University in 2017.
She has had solo exhibitions at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Portland Art Museum in 2013, and the Guggenheim Museum in 2014, where she was the first African American woman to have a retrospective. This year she became the first Black woman to win the prestigious Hasselblad Award. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate London, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles among others.