Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video

Review

Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video

By Danica Willard Sachs December 16, 2013

For the past thirty years, Carrie Mae Weems has confronted issues of memory, race, gender, and power through her diverse, narrative photographic and filmic practice. Loosely organized around three central themes in Weems’ work—the construction of identity, the power of place, and the legacy of history—this long-overdue retrospective explores the artist’s investigation of family relationships and gender roles, and the interplay of race, gender, and class within political systems. Weems’ unrelenting focus on these issues is mirrored by an exhibition that is equally dense and at times overwhelming, even as the art it contains feels very prescient about race and racialized violence in our present moment.

A highlight of the exhibition is a gallery devoted to the entirety of Weems’ iconic Kitchen Table Series (1990). Combining the languages of conceptual and performance art by pairing fragments of narrative text with staged photographs, the work features the artist as a modern black woman who must continually renegotiate her position in response to societal expectations. Made in Weems’ own kitchen, each large-format gelatin silver print places the viewer at the end of the titular table to watch the protagonist’s encounters with love, motherhood, and community. A single, harsh light source—a utilitarian pendant lamp—and each scene’s tight, confined composition put the viewer in a position somewhere between a confidant and an interrogator, highlighting in turn how the domestic space of the kitchen shapes the everyday challenges faced by women. This work clearly marks a pivotal moment in Weems’ practice. In many of the later works featured in the exhibition, the artist returns to issues of race, gender, and the power of space, drawing on her own experience to perform for the camera.

From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995-96) is no less powerful. Here, Weems appropriates early daguerreotypes portraying African Americans, re-photographing and enlarging each source image, tinting them red, and pairing them with a narrative text etched into the frame that reveals how the subjects were perceived by society at the time the original images were created. The curatorial choice of a dramatic installation of the pieces against a black backdrop is a bit heavy-handed, but the works on their own showcase Weems’ ability to recover and reanimate often forgotten histories.

Where the exhibition does the least service to Weems’ work is in its display of three different video works the artist produced between 2003 and 2009. With the videos tucked into the back corner near the end of the exhibition and played sequentially on a loop, a viewer would have to muster the stamina to sit for over an hour to watch them all. This is especially frustrating in the case of a work such as Afro-Chic (2009), the artist’s playful commentary on the construction of beauty and identity in pop culture, which provides a much-needed moment of subversive levity.

Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video ultimately makes clear that Weems’ main project is to raise questions about the relationship between an artist and her history, and the ethics of representing that history. This is especially apparent in the exhibition’s final gallery, which features several black-and-white chromogenic prints from the 2006 series Roaming. Building on her work in the series Beacon (2005) and Dreaming in Cuba (2002), these beautifully composed photographs situate the artist against the background of an eerily deserted Rome. Dressed as a muse-like figure in a long black gown, her back to the camera, Weems poses with familiar Roman architectural landmarks, leaving us to ponder the physical substance of our past and how it impacts our present.

Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video is on view at Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, in Stanford, through January 5, 2014.

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