In 1974, a friend gave Carrie Mae Weems her first camera, which the young, African American woman used as a political and social tool, recording the anti-war demonstrations, feminist marches and left-wing political events in which she took part.1 Born in Portland, Oregon in 1953, Weems moved to San Francisco after high school to study modern dance. To support herself, she worked in a clothing factory and began participating in the labor movement as a union organizer. Shortly after taking her first pictures, Weems became interested in documentary photographers, including Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Roy DeCarava. In this manner, Weems came to creative photography after almost a decade of low-paying jobs and a rich experience in political activism. As Andrea Kirsh writes in “Carrie Mae Weems: Issues in Black, White and Color,” by the age of 27, Weems “had professional experience in modern dance; a progression of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs on farms and in restaurants, factories and offices; and extensive grass-roots political experience in socialist and feminist organizations.”2 With this background, Weems enrolled in the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, in 1977. She cites her decision to pursue higher education as motivated by the crisis in left-wing politics in the late 1970s.3 She received her BA from CalArts in 1981 and her MFA from the University of California, San Diego, in 1984.
In her first major series, Weems journeys back home to Portland to photograph her family. Recorded audiotapes and written commentary provide background and enrich the viewer’s understanding of the intimate images of her parents—former Mississippi sharecroppers who moved to Oregon in 1950—her siblings, nieces and nephews. Unlike a typical family photo album, Weems does not try to sugarcoat her family’s history. Instead, she openly presents their problems and struggles at the same time with the affection and admiration she holds for them. For example, the subtitle of a seemingly traditional photograph of her father and brother reads: “Hands down, Dad and Son-Son really love one another. But when they’re drinking things have been known to get out of line, ya know. Well, the last time they were on ‘full’, one thing led to another and before anyone knew what was happening, they’d both whipped out pistols and boom!!… Look, I’m telling you my folks can get way crazy.”4 This subtitle demonstrates the important narrative quality of Weems’ photographs in which the supplementary text plays a vital role. Commenting on her motivation for the series, Weems stated: “I am fascinated by the distance between people in the same family, between men and women, and between ethnic groups and nationalities through the use of language derived form experience. There’s certain language that comes out of sharecropping and cotton farming, that comes out in the way men and women, women and children, and women and women share experiences. That’s the vitality of language.”5 In this manner, the texts that accompany Weem’s photographs give words to her images, shaping more completely the language of the photograph.
After completing the Family Pictures and Stories series in 1983, Weems enrolled in the graduate program in African American Folklore at the University of California, Berkeley and received her MA in 1987. Her studies with this program enabled Weems to step outside a European and Western aesthetic and “[draw] upon Afro-American culture as a foundation for creating art.”6 Concentrating on the ways in which images shape the viewer’s perception of race, gender and class, her series, Ain’t Jokin’ (1987-88), explored the racism present in everyday, seemingly benign interactions and objects. For example, an image of a gorilla alongside a portrait of a young black man is entitled What’s a cross between an ape and a nigger? The answer printed below the images reads: “a mentally retarded ape.” The violent jokes accompanying the images and photographs that along with their captions allude to racial stereotypes, including Black Woman with Chicken, confront the viewer with his own prejudices and racist practices.
With the Kitchen Table Series produced between 1987 and 1992, Weems began to focus on issues of gender and the role of the contemporary, black woman in American society. In the Kitchen Table Series, Weems creates a fictional narrative in which she plays the protagonist. The photographs are constructed around the kitchen table with a low hanging light illuminating the intimate, yet mundane scenes between a woman and her husband, her friends, her children, or the solitary moments to herself. This narrative character of Weems’ photographs is evident in Untitled (Museum). The photograph is taken far away from its subjects. The viewer feels a great distance and separation from the woman in a long black dress who is equally isolated from the group of people ascending the steps and passing through the imposing colonnade to what one supposes is a museum entrance. The inertia of the woman in black contrasts with the movement of the other figures in the frame. Only the skirt of her dress lifts in the wind. The woman in black turns her back on the viewer, seeming to stare longingly at the group of people in front of her. Weems appears to be commenting on the exclusion of the black, woman artist from the Western European tradition. However, the strong composition of this photograph lacks a text, which would complete the narrative for the viewer. In this manner, the interpretation of the meaning of the photograph must be individual. What is certain is that Weems’ photographs have challenged commonly held conceptions of the role of race, gender and human relationships in the United States.
- Thomas Piché, Jr, “Reading Carrie Mae Weems,” Carrie Mae Weems: Recent Work, 1992-1998 (New York: George Braziller, 1998), p. 10.
- Andrea Kirsh, “Carrie Mae Weems: Issues in Black, White and Color,” Carrie Mae Weems (Washington D.C.: The National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1993), p. 9.
- Carrie Mae Weems (Washington D.C.: The National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1993), p. 41.
- Dana Friis-Hansen, “From Carrie’s Kitchen Table and Beyond,” ChickenBones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes www.nathanielturner.com/carriemaeweems.htm
- Qtd. in Susan Fisher Sterling, “Signifying Photographs and Texts in the Work of Carrie Mae Weems,” Carrie Mae Weems (Washington D.C.: The National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1993), p. 19.
Written by Megan Downing (SC ’08), 2007-08 Academic Year Wilson Intern.