Photographer Spotlight: Carie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems (born April 20, 1953) is an American artist who works with text, fabric, audio, digital images, and installation video but is best known for her work in the field of photography. Her award-winning photographs, films, and videos have been displayed in over 50 exhibitions in the United States and abroad and focus on serious issues that face African Americans today, such as racism, gender relations, politics, and personal identity. She has said, “Let me say that my primary concern in art, as in politics, is with the status and place of Afro-Americans in our country. More recently however, she expressed that “Black experience is not really the main point; rather, complex, dimensional, human experience and social inclusion … is the real point.”

Weems was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1953, the second of seven children to Myrlie and Carrie Weems. At the age of 16 she gave birth to her first and only child, a daughter named Faith C. Weems. Later that year she moved out of her parent’s home and soon relocated to San Francisco to study modern dance with Anna Halprin at a workshop Halprin had started with several other dancers, as well as the artists John Cage and Robert Morris. She decided to continue her arts schooling and attended the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, graduating at the age of 28 with her B.A.

In 1983, Carrie Mae Weems completed her first collection of photographs, text, and spoken word, called Family Pictures and Stories. The images told the story of her family, and she has said that in this project she was trying to explore the movement of black families out of the South and into the North, using her family as a model for the larger theme. Her next series, called Ain’t Jokin’, was completed in 1988. It focused on racial jokes and internalized racism. Another series called American Icons, completed in 1989, also focused on racism. Weems has said that throughout the 1980s she was turning away from the documentary photography genre, instead “creating representations that appeared to be documents but were in fact staged” and also “incorporating text, using multiples images, diptychs and triptychs, and constructing narratives. “Sexism was the next focal point for her. It was the topic of one of her most well known collections called The Kitchen Table series which was completed in 1990.

About Kitchen Table and Family Pictures and Stories, Weems has said, “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.” She has expressed disbelief and concern about the exclusion of images of the black community, particularly black women, from the popular media, and aims to represent these excluded subjects and speak to their experience through her work. Weems has also reflected on the themes and inspirations of her work as a whole, saying,

“…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.”

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