The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
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In 1976 I had been making photographs for a couple of years. I had certainly been looking at a lot more photographs than I had actually made. From looking at photographs in books and magazines and going to exhibitions of pictures by Mike Disfarmer at MoMA, Richard Avedon at Marlborough, and haunting whatever other places there were to see photographs in New York in the early 1970s, I had begun to educate myself, with the intent of adding something to the conversation through my own pictures.
The artist Janet Henry, who was from the same Jamaica, Queens neighborhood that I lived in, had gotten a job in the Education Department at the Studio Museum in Harlem, then located above a Kentucky Fried Chicken on 125th Street and Fifth Avenue in a large second floor loft space. When Frank Stewart, the museum’s staff photographer and photo teacher, left to do a commissioned project in Cuba, Janet called me and asked if I would take over the class. On the first day of class a few students straggled in. One of them, a seemingly shy woman with big expressive eyes, introduced herself, “Hi, my name is Carrie. Do you think I could be a photographer?” she asked, holding her Leica camera in her hand. That began what has now been 33 years of friendship and camaraderie with one of the most brilliant people I know.
From the very beginning, Carrie Mae Weems has had a sharp intelligence that was looking for a way into the world. From her early documentary photographs to the more expansive and materially varied recent works, she has consistently set out to visually define the world on her own terms and to redefine for all of us the nature of the world that we are in. After all these years I still anticipate her work with a fresh sense of wonderment, knowing that her restless search for the deeper meaning of things will yield a continuing rich trove of objects and images. On a Sunday morning in May I called from my home in Chicago to reconnect with my dear friend while she was traveling in Seville, Spain.
Dawoud Bey We’re doing this interview while you’re in Europe, and of course I’m wondering what you’re working on there; I know you were in Rome previously, and now you’re in Seville. What’s going on over there?
Carrie Mae Weems When I first decided to return to Rome, I wanted to relax a little bit because I was working very hard and I knew that I needed a mental break before I had a mental breakdown. I decided to leave the country and come to a place that I knew and felt comfortable in. I also wanted to finish some aspects of the work that began in Rome in 2006. So I’ve been standing in front of all these monuments and palazzos, thinking about questions of power. I’ve stayed because I’m working on an exhibition here that opens in October, and wanted to see the space and start preparing the work for the exhibition and the catalogue.
DB Your work has had a very grand sweep since we first met in 1976. I would say you began in a kind of documentary mode, turning your camera on aspects of your surrounding world that allowed you to visually talk about the things that you were seeing and the things that had value or meaning for you. Your Family Pictures and Stories brought those observations closer to home in an autobiographical way and also began to bring a shift through the introduction of a textual voice into your work. Since that work you have deployed a range of strategies in realizing your ideas. I’m wondering if you could go back for a minute and just talk briefly about where you were in 1976 when you had decided that the camera was going to be your voice. What influenced you and who were your models at that point?
CMW We were young. (laughter) It’s wonderful to have the benefit of hindsight. I think often about planning retrospectives—I’ve got one coming up this fall in Seville at the Contemporary and one at the Frist Center for Contemporary Art in Nashville in 2011. They give me the chance to look back over the work, over my history. The thing that surprises me most about the early work is that it’s not particularly different from the work I’m making now. Of course I was trying to find a unique voice, but beyond that, from the very beginning, I’ve been interested in the idea of power and the consequences of power; relationships are made and articulated through power. Another thing that’s interesting about the early work is that even though I’ve been engaged in the idea of autobiography, other ideas have been more important: the role of narrative, the social levels of humor, the deconstruction of documentary, the construction of history, the use of text, storytelling, performance, and the role of memory have all been more central to my thinking than autobiography. It’s assumed that autobiography is key, because I so often use myself, my own of experience—limited as it is at times—as the starting point. But I use myself simply as a vehicle for approaching the question of power, and following where that leads me to and through. It’s never about me; it’s always about something larger.
In Family Pictures and Stories, I was thinking not only of my family, but was trying to explore the movement of black families out of the South and into the North. My family becomes the representational vehicle that allows me to enter the larger discussion of race, class, and historical migration. So, the Family series operates in this way, as does the Kitchen Tableseries. I use my own constructed image as a vehicle for questioning ideas about the role of tradition, the nature of family, monogamy, polygamy, relationships between men and women, between women and their children, and between women and other women—underscoring the critical problems and the possible resolves. In one way or another, my work endlessly explodes the limits of tradition. I’m determined to find new models to live by. Aren’t you?
DB Can you talk about some of the earlier relationships that shaped you? I know how important those early relationships were to my formation, and I think yours, too—to realize that there were indeed black people who were out there making this work. There had been black artists making work for a very long time, but of course they were largely invisible—we didn’t know but maybe one or two. So to discover a whole community of them to whom we had access was just amazing. It was like, We’re not invisible, there are others like us. We were in fact part of a long and rich tradition, and it’s not merely located in the past.
CMW It’s fair to say that black folks operate under a cloud of invisibility—this too is part of the work, is indeed central to the work. The stuff that I’m doing right now has so much to do with this notion of invisibility. Even in the midst of the great social changes we’ve experienced just in the last year with the election of Barack Obama, for the most part African Americans and our lives remain invisible. Black people are to be turned away from, not turned toward—we bear the mark of Cain. It’s an aesthetic thing; blackness is an affront to the persistence of whiteness. It’s the reason that so little has been done to stop genocide in Africa.
This invisibility—this erasure out of the complex history of our life and time—is the greatest source of my longing. As you know, I’m a woman who yearns, who longs for. This is the key to me and to the work, and something which is rarely discussed in reviews or essays, which I also find remarkably disappointing. That there are so few images of African-American women circulating in popular culture or in fine art is disturbing; the pathology behind it is dangerous. I mean, we got a sistah in the White House, and yet mediated culture excludes us, denies us, erases us. But in the face of refusal, I insist on making work that includes us as part of the greater whole. Black experience is not really the main point; rather, complex, dimensional, human experience and social inclusion—even in the shit, muck, and mire—is the real point. This is evident in video works like In Love and in Trouble, Make Someone Happy, Mayflowers, and Constructing History. But again, these ideas are rarely discussed. Blackness seems to obliterate sound judgment, reason.
DB There was a wonderful article in the New York Times two or three weeks ago about Mickalene Thomas and her work.
CMW Right, I haven’t read it but I keep hearing about it.
DB There’s a wonderful point where she talks about your work, and it being absolutely formative to her own sense that she could do this, that she could talk about what she wanted to through her work. Even though it’s a second-hand kind of relationship, which is very different from the community in New York that we came out of, surrounded by people like Frank Stewart, Adger Cowans, Lorna Simpson, Shawn Walker, Beuford Smith, Tony Barboza … I honestly don’t know what I would have ended up doing in the absence of that community of support.
CMW It’s been critical to have some of these artists as mentors and fellow travelers. My first encounter with black photographers was as an 18-year-old, when I saw the Black Photographers Annual. I remember standing in the middle of the floor flipping the pages, seeing images that just blew me away, like a bolt of lightning. I truly saw the possibility for myself—as both subject and artist. I knew that I would emulate what they had begun. Shawn Walker, Beuford Smith, Anthony Barboza, Ming Smith, Adger Cowans, and, certainly, the phenomenal Roy DeCarava. Of course, this comes back to you; because you were one of my first teachers. You too showed me the possibilities, showed me a path—I love you for it. But I also learned to create a path; finding my own nuanced voice on that road toward self-definition, as well as defining/describing a people and our historical moment. Sometime in the early 1980s, traditional documentary was called into question, it was no longer the form; for my photographs to be credible, I needed to make a direct intervention, extend the form by playing with it, manipulating it, creating representations that appeared to be documents but were in fact staged. In the same breath I began incorporating text, using multiples images, diptychs and triptychs, and constructing narratives.
DB I’m also thinking about the Studio Museum in Harlem and the way in which that institution looms very large in this conversation. It’s been there since 1976, and as I think about the artists who continue to come out of that institution, I can’t imagine where else those artists would have emerged from in its absence. That was obviously the rationale for its existence; there was no other place that could have provided that extraordinary level of support.
CMW The Studio Museum was home for us. Many of my most important relationships were formed there. Of course, meeting you was of singular importance in my life; meeting Ed Sherman, incredible. We’re still in touch to this day. It was a place that offered opportunity, a place for engaged social dialogue, not just about photography, but around the arts in general. When I lived in San Francisco before moving permanently to New York, I would fly to events at the Studio Museum. I remember Michelle Wallace’s talk on her book Black Macho and the Myth of the Super Woman: there must have been 500 people there, folks standing in the rafters. Debates went on for weeks after. It was a place not only for artists but for the black intelligentsia in the city. Now, Thelma Golden is there re-engerzing the place. Listen, the Studio Museum is my home away from home. It’s where I go to find out what’s going on in African-American—and African—culture and art. As much as we attempt to work in a number of other kinds of institutions, it’s still the Studio Museum that first and foremost recognizes our contributions.
DB I don’t know if I’ve ever asked you this, but given that in 1976 you came to New York by way of California, what originally brought you to the Studio Museum community?
CMW Even as a girl of 14, I knew I was going to live in New York. I’m from Portland, Oregon, which was a very small town not long ago. It’s changed tremendously in the last 15 years. I knew that I was going to be an artist; what kind of artist, I didn’t know, but I knew that my comfort would be found in the world of art. I came to New York when I was 17 and turned 18 with a big, fine gay boy who took me to see James Brown. But I was young and ill-formed for the city; I went back to San Francisco. My boyfriend gave me my first camera for my 21st birthday and it changed everything.
In the mid-’70s I started thinking about returning to New York, but I loved San Francisco, so I lived bi-coastally for a long time. I came to New York to figure out how to study and be connected to the art of photography. I had nobody to introduce me. It’s possible that Jules Allen, who was also living in San Francisco, told me about the Studio Museum. I don’t know how else I would have found out about it. As soon as I came back to New York in my early twenties, I went there to take classes.
DB There are some things that I want to ask you that are more specific to your work. Things I haven’t actually asked you but have thought about for some time. One has to do with an aspect of your work in which you are, conceptually, both in front of and behind the camera. You’re the subject and you’re the photographer. Certainly the earlier Kitchen Table series introduced that idea quite forcefully. More recently there’s a recurring figure that has been appearing in your work; what I would call a silent witness to history. This woman, although we can’t always see her face, seems to be a kind of omnipotent presence, signaling perhaps that what she bears witness to is more highly charged than what we might think. She seems like a witness who, through witnessing, almost carries the weight of each place. This woman—this avatar—who is she? What’s her function in relation to places and the narratives you’re constructing?
CMW I call her my muse—but it’s safe to say that she’s more than one thing. She’s an alter-ego. My alter-ego, yes. But she has a very real function in my work life. I was in the Folklore program at UC Berkeley for three years, working with Alan Dundes on the strategy of participant/observer. I attempt to create in the work the simultaneous feeling of being in it and of it. I try to use the tension created between these different positions—I am both subject and object; performer and director. I only recently realized that I’ve been acting/performing/observing in this way for years—the work told me.
The muse made her first appearance in Kitchen Table; this woman can stand in for me and for you; she can stand in for the audience, she leads you into history. She’s a witness and a guide. She changes slightly, depending on location. For instance, she operates differently in Cuba and Louisiana than in Rome. She’s shown me a great deal about the world and about myself, and I’m grateful to her. Carrying a tremendous burden, she is a black woman leading me through the trauma of history. I think it’s very important that as a black woman she’s engaged with the world around her; she’s engaged with history, she’s engaged with looking, with being. She’s a guide into circumstances seldom seen.
Much of my current work centers on power and architecture. For instance, I find myself traveling in Seville, Rome, and Berlin. It’s been implied that I have no place in Europe. I find the idea that I’m “out of place” shocking. There’s a dynamic relationship between these places: the power of the state, the emotional manipulation of citizens through architectural means, the trauma of the war, genocide, the erasure of Jews, the slave coast, and the slave cabins. Here I can see an Egyptian obelisk in every major square, one riding on the back of Bernini’s sculpture. The world met on the Mediterranean, not on the Mississippi—these things are linked in my mind. From here, Africa is just one giant step away. Spain is closer than Savannah, Rome closer than Rhode Island. Mark Antony lost his power languishing in the arms of Cleopatra; Mussolini established Italian colonies in Egypt; the Moors and Africans controlled the waters of Spain, leaving their mark in the Alhambra. Money was minted here, not in Maine. See what I mean? I’m not here to eat the pasta. I’m trying in my humble way connect the dots, to confront history. Democracy and colonial expansion are rooted here. So I refuse the imposed limits. My girl, my muse, dares to show up as a guide, an engaged persona pointing toward the history of power. She’s the unintended consequence of the Western imagination.
It’s essential that I do this work and it’s essential that I do it with my body.
DB How do you think about what the next piece of this conversation is as you construct this narrative?
CMW I’m a woman who’s engaged with the world. I feel as at home in Seville as in Spanish Harlem. (laughter) So I have these curious interests. I’m walking down curious paths trying to connect the dots. For instance, in Seville I wanted to see some flamenco dancing. I jumped into a cab and the first music I heard was Cuban music. I’ve been thinking about flamenco for years because I love the form. In Spain, the gypsies are the greatest dancers of flamenco. It’s more related to African dance and blues than the Spanish Cha-cha-cha. If I want to know something about the African influence on dance, then I need to know Mississippi and go to Cuba, Brazil, and Spain, because that’s how you connect the dots. I can’t connect them in my living room. So when I’m thinking about a project, I’m thinking about the dots; the way in which something starts small and radiates out to points of contact. If I can see things and understand them with my mind and body, I might be able to use them. It keeps me out in the world, even when I would prefer to be home, in bed and near my husband.
DB What about form? There’s the how, but there’s also the what.
CMW I think the how is the most difficult and rewarding. Sometimes my work needs to be photographic, sometimes it needs words, sometimes it needs to have a relationship to music, sometimes it needs to have all three and become a video projection. I feel more comfortable now without my muse. I’ve figured out a way of making pictures that suggests that something is being witnessed. The most recent work, Constructing History, does this.
DB Over the years you’ve been particularly adept at not only merging idea with an engaging material form, but creating evolving material forms in the sense of process.
CMW The work tells you what form it needs to take. What’s important is knowing when to put your ego aside so you can see what the work wants to be. Being sensitive to the world around you and paying attention to your aesthetic tools … Once you know that you can make it, you get out of the way. There’s also economy of means. I’m not interested in stomping around the world with thirteen cameras, ten lenses, umbrellas and stands, and all that bullshit. I move around with an old beat-up camera, a fucked-up tripod, and as much film as I can carry. Then I just trust that I know what I’m doing with this little black box and that’s it’s going to be okay. I hate the idea of spending $100,000 on a bullshit photo shoot. It’s so stupid. I believe in using economy—but not when buying shoes. (laughter)
DB What have you seen in Seville that’s made you smile recently?
CMW This morning I was at Feria, a traditional fair that happens every year in Seville, and there were two little girls whose mother was pushing them in a stroller. They had on crazy-assflamenco dresses. They were like three years old, wearing these amazing dresses—flowers and ribbons in their hair. Seville is a place where ideas about clothes, dress, presentation, sexuality, engagement, and tradition are so rooted. It was thrilling and lovely to see. I’ve been out and about, and, of course, keeping my ears open for music.
DB Talking with you over the years, I’ve been acutely aware of a particular cultural wellspring of references that run through your work and indeed through you, informing both the production of your work and the way you choose to be in the world. One of those strong references is music. A while back I was listening the poet Quincy Troupe read his work and just as clear as day I was hearing John Coltrane, who Quincy later confirmed as a strong influence. I often hear music when I look at some of your work, too, and even when I hear you speak. So I’m wondering what role music plays in your personal life, your creative and intellectual life; how you have drawn from it?
CMW Music has saved my life, more than once. Abbey Lincoln is my favorite, I listen to her music often. She sets the tone—she’s a woman of yearning and of longing. Miles’s forlorn trumpet sets the pace and Jason Moran carries the melodic line. Like Monk, I’m spinning, but hum along.
Dawoud Bey’s career began in 1975 with the Harlem, USA photographs, later exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979. He has since had numerous exhibitions worldwide, including a survey at the Walker Art Center. His book Class Pictures was published by Aperture in 2007 and an exhibition of the same title is touring US museums through 2011.
Originally published in
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.