The much-anticipated Carrie Mae Weems retrospective opens at The Frist today, but I got to sneak in early for a media preview yesterday morning. Weems herself was in attendance, along with her husband Jeffrey Hoone. (“I am so lucky! And he’s a white man!” were the first things she said.) Hoone gave a glowing introduction to her curiosity and work ethic while we stood in the room devoted to her “Kitchen Table Series,” and I could almost hear Paul McCartney singing “Lady Madonna” in my head.
Not surprisingly, the preview audience seemed most moved by “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” the series of 33 appropriated photographs of African-Americans from the earliest days of photography, and curator Katie Delmez mentioned that Michelle Obama was similarly moved after seeing the series at the MoMA. When an audience member told Weems that she wanted to cry whenever she saw one particular photograph — the famous daguerreotype of the shirtless man whose back was badly scarred, presumably from being beaten by his slave owner — Weems said that she too felt those strong emotions, and that was why it was important to her to etch the inscription on the glass.
She read the inscription aloud: “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.” Out of the tragedy of slavery, out of the hardships African-Americans have endured, artists like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday have risen. “I am so grateful to be black in American that I don’t know what to do,” Weems said. Her voice is warm and confident, and she talks about heavy things with a reflective lightness.
Look through photographs of the installation below, and come to The Frist tomorrow at 11 a.m. to hear Carrie Mae Weems' keynote address.