Every time Carrie Mae Weems speaks about her work, her voice is dripping with contemplative emotion, a calm and soothing tone that calls to the likes of Toni Morrison, where you get the deep sense that her art is done with a specific love that only black women can bring and scholarly awareness of “professor like” quality. Her central theme with her work resonates as a deliberate force, shining light in the darkness, methodically opening the closed and hidden door far down the hall and to the left. You know the one, the one painted haphazardly, that says “Closed for the women, the people of color, and the working class.”
Hailing from the land of Portland, Oregon, Carrie Mae’s former training as a dancer primed her for greatness, as her work is controlled within the dramatic structure that is quite theatrical. She simply sets the stage and allows the photographs to come forth. The results are often a perfect balance of heightened reality.
It is within this context that Carrie Mae Weems not only strives to amplify voices that are silent and hidden, but has even worked to reframe lenses that were formerly meant to demean, objectify, and shame.
Don’t like someone else’s work? Change IT. Make It Your Own
Her work “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” she alters the racist and humiliating intentions of the original photography and humanizes the black people within the frame. She defines the images with her own way, with the use of color, and textured thoughts while simultaneously being unapologetic about what the past atrocities levied on humans that happened to bronzed skin. Projecting her view of the images creates a dynamic that is active instead of passive. Weems shows us that you don’t have to accept anything “as is,” if you don’t agree with how something or someone is portrayed, you are well within your right as an artist and as a human being to take the reins, and redefine it for yourself.
“Looking at the history of photography and how African American’s have been particularly depicted and inscribed through and in photography. I used images that were preexisting, and adding the use of color to enhance the image. Using oval and circular mats to look through the lens. We are looking at how white American saw itself in relation to the black subject.”
Exist Within Your Art
Photography is an elusive medium in a sense. The photographer is usually a shadowy figure behind the lens, while the subject is front and center. The photographer can seemingly get away with a self portrait and anything else could be seen as sacrilege. Yet, Carrie Mae kicks the traditional formula to the curb by often being her own muse within her own artistic projects.
Also inserting herself as the primary subject of the art, brings another layer of humanity that is both personal and existential.
“Somehow I think of myself as standing in for something that is bigger than me. That she’s my muse and this character that I’ve developed leads me through the world in an interesting way, and takes me to situations and places that Carrie wouldn’t normally go.”
Your Art Is Bigger Than You
“I have to make my own way, and build the kinds of the images that I think need to be built in relationship to the great artists that I know. Even though I’m not a great artist. I have to build these images that don’t exist in another way, that have not been made yet by anyone else… I can’t rely on these artists. As much as I love these artists. And they have disappointed me greatly. As much as I love them, I revere them. I’m also very very disappointed in their engagements of the historical body of self, of the black self, of the black body, of the black imagination.”
“…Art has a great deal to do with imagining the unimaginable…”
Carrie Mae Weems feels like an artistic debater in a sense. To me her works seem to have a megaphone, they are a powerful rebuttal, a continued response that works to refute every ill stereotype and demeaning lie that has been placed on the black woman, the black family, the black American life. The evils of slavery, Jim Crow, implicit and explicit biases, So much work has been done to portray us as everything but normal and human, and I love how she works to reshape that which is damaged. Photography is the singular artistic element that focuses supremely on sight, and piece by piece, Weems is working to turn the head so that we may see that which is more akin to the truth, the dramatic lens adding a dose of elegance to the equation. Also, being a dancer myself, I identify so much with Weems deep visceral understanding of stage presence and control, while also commanding space for the body, specifically the black body to exist and define meaning and identity for itself. Carrie Mae Weems is so intentional and inspirational! Comment below if you love her work!