As you walk through the Frist exhibition Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, consider the fact that this mid-career retrospective is quite overdue. When Jack Shainman Gallery in New York presented a room-sized survey of Weems' extensive body of work in 2008, New York Times critic Holland Cotter expressed confusion over the fact that Weems hadn't yet had a museum retrospective, and claimed that "no American photographer of the last quarter century had turned out a more probing, varied and moving body of work."
It was this comment that pushed Frist curator Katie Delmez, who had written her dissertation on Weems' "Sea Island Series," to track Weems down and propose that her first major retrospective develop out of Nashville. Four years later, here it is, including more than 200 works of art and an elegant catalog published by Yale University Press to accompany it. After The Frist, the exhibit will travel to various institutions around the nation, until its final stop at The Guggenheim in New York. Overdue? Perhaps. Worth the wait? As Robert Storr, one of the catalog contributors, described it, "This is the cycle of slow assimilation. It takes time for your best audience to get to you."
As a storyteller, Weems is sharply aware of her audience. It is impossible to be passive in the presence of her work. We are hers from the exhibition's beginning, when we hear her voice emanating from the corner of the gallery dedicated to her first major series, "Family Pictures and Stories." In response to the 1965 Moynihan Report, which criticized the "deterioration of the fabric of Negro society" as the weakest family structure within the country, Weems took candid pictures of her own family in Portland, Ore. It was not intended to paint a pretty picture, but rather, provide a real visual example of what Moynihan attempted to describe based on cold statistical research and a racist position. "Family Pictures" establishes the foundation for a series of other stories that take us all over the globe — from a backyard, to the oldest city in the sub-Sahara, to Beacon, N.Y., to Rome.
Despite the international range of places in her work, she is most often associated with the "Kitchen Table Series," where the artist's distinct role as both protagonist and narrator is fully realized. Panels of text carry the photographs forward through a failed love story that takes place at a kitchen table under a bright overhead lamp. Weems is in each image, but the props in the room change to mark each shift in the relationship — a poster of Malcolm X is replaced by a painting of flowers, liquor is traded out for water and then liquor again, a mother-daughter relationship unfolds, and a birdcage and a solitaire spread mark the end on a note of solitude. As I exited the room to be confronted with her video "Afro Chic," I felt like I had just read a short story by Chekhov. How is this artist able to take me from that experience to watching a video that addresses hairstyles as the semiotics of power?
We live in a society that occasionally refers to itself as post-racial. To this, I can only imagine Weems responding with the signature "ha" that you see throughout the textual component of her work. She is a documentary photographer who deconstructs histories to instruct new understandings. This exhibition is not intended to showcase what work by a "black female artist" looks like. It does, on the other hand, confront the expectation that she will be a mere subject within the framework of marginalization.
One of Weems' most crucial concerns as a photographer is to retrace forgotten or covered-up histories. Most evidently, we see it in her body of work "From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried," where she was granted access to an archive of photographs that examined the African-American as subject matter. She chose a number of images — some of which are probably already etched in the minds of viewers — and enlarged them to a consistent size, tinted red and placed under glass. Over the glass she engraved text that traces what the subject has become in the history of photography: "You became a scientific profile," "A negroid type," "An anthropological debate," "Playmate to the patriarch." The series is bookended with the profile of a royal Mangbetu woman, tinted blue, cast as the one who is observing the fate of Africans when they were sold to slavery.
It is important to remember that she who can confront her pain is better able to enjoy her pleasure. There is a pervading sensuality that weaves throughout the works. We see it in Weems' ability to embody the places she visits, in her poetic language, her manipulation of the gaze, and the performer-oriented control over her own body. She purposely places herself in the position of becoming her viewers' eyes, and her work is concerned with taking full responsibility for that. A relationship develops between the artist and viewer, one where the artist asks questions (while knowing all the answers), leads you through a constant narrative, seduces you, nurtures your response — and then just as you are settling into the somber orchestral piece Adagio for Strings, which pours out of speakers in two different works, she snaps you out of your trance. She stares at you through one of her self-portraits (in my case, "Winfredo, Laura, and Me" from the "Dreaming in Cuba" series), and asks, "You still with me?" Am I with you? Ha. There is nowhere else to be. The artist conquers you. Weems makes work that addresses the structure of power, and she becomes a reigning force in this role.
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