WHAT DETERMINES GREATNESS? In her introductory note about how the six people featured in “T” magazine’s 2018 Greats issue were selected, Hanya Yanagihara, editor of the New York Times style publication, admits “there is no real metric for greatness.” The candidates could be described as extraordinary. Perhaps they have helped shape or change their field. All of them have in some way “helped steer the cultural discourse.”
In 2016, Michelle Obama was among The Greats (along with artist Kerry James Marshall). The magazine’s write-up about the First Lady featured contributions from four prominent figures in their own right—including Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—who each penned thank-you notes to Obama in appreciation for her “quietly and confidently changing the course of American history.”
The author of several books including “Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions” (2017) and the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel “Americanah” (2013), Adichie was among The Greats in 2017. Her profile included a photographic portrait made by Carrie Mae Weems, which was inspired by her 1990 “Kitchen Table Series.”
This year, The Greats are George R.R. Martin, Solange, Alessandro Michele, Viggo Mortensen, Bruce Nauman, and Weems, who is photographed by Mickalene Thomas. (If the pattern continues, maybe Thomas will be among The Greats in 2019.)
The magazine declares Weems “perhaps our best contemporary photographer” and explores the breadth of her career, her many bodies of work, and the ways in which she “rewrote the rules on image making.”
Weems was born in Portland, Ore.. Today, she splits her time between Syracuse, N.Y., and Fort Greene, Brooklyn. She works in photography, video, performance, and installation. Her solo exhibition, “Strategies of Engagement” is currently at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College and a two-part installation on view at Cornell University is titled “Heave.”
Megan O’Grady wrote about Weems for “T” magazine and described the greatness of her oeuvre:
Her photographs and short films, as gimlet-eyed and gutsy as they are visually compelling, have gone a long way toward resetting our expectations of pictures and challenging our assumptions about her largely African-American subjects. A gifted storyteller who works accessibly in text and image, she’s created new narratives around women, people of color and working-class communities, conjuring lush art from the arid polemics of identity.
A gifted storyteller who works accessibly in text and image, [Carrie Mae Weems has] created new narratives around women, people of color and working-class communities, conjuring lush art from the arid polemics of identity.
For about 40 years, Weems has been making powerful visual statements. For most of her career, few critics and institutions knew what to make of her countless photographic series—combatting a government report about the breakdown of the black family by documenting her own black family; turning her kitchen table into a photography studio cum window into a woman’s life, her domestic space, and relationships; searching for humanity in 1850 daguerreotypes of former slaves; deconstructing colorism; wryly critiquing of Manet’s definition of beauty; and turning her back on the camera to confront museums around the world that lack access and diversity when it comes to the collecting and exhibition practices.
Her work has always been profound and insightful. Now it is more widely recognized and appreciated. She won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2013. When “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video” opened in 2014 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, it was the first retrospective of a black female artist the museum had ever presented.
THE MAGAZINE ARTICLE covers new and little-known terrain. We learn about Weems’s endearing relationship with her father, how she met her husband, the backstory on her 2002 image “May Flowers” featuring three little girls, and her connections with other photographers and longtime friends. She was roommates with Lorna Simpson at the University of California, San Diego. Dawoud Bey was her teacher in a photography class at the Studio Museum in Harlem. For a time, she was Anthony Barboza’s assistant and connected with the Kamoinge Workshop, the organization of black photographers in New York.
CARRIE MAE WEEMS, “Untitled (Eating lobster),” 1990 (silver print). | © Carrie Mae Weems, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
CARRIE MAE WEEMS, “May Flowers,” 2002 (chromogenic print, printed 2013). | Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund 2014.3.1
She also commented on the art market and the price gap between work by male and female artists. Work by Weems and Kerry James Marshall, who are represented by the same gallery (Jack Shainman), was up for auction earlier this year in May at Sotheby’s.
“My work sold for $67,000 and his sold for $21 million,” Weems said. “Kerry Marshall and I became artists together, we were friends together, we were lovers together, we participated in this field together. On the social value scale, we’re equal. But not in the marketplace.”
“Kerry Marshall and I became artists together, we were friends together, we were lovers together, we participated in this field together. On the social value scale, we’re equal. But not in the marketplace.” — Carrie Mae Weems
In addition to the in-depth profile of Weems, the magazine gave the photographer a Polaroid camera and asked her to make 10 images documenting poignant moments in her life. T also reached out to eight artists and asked them to share how Weems has influenced them and their work.
Lyle Ashton Frazier said she is “the Ida B. Wells of the contemporary art scene.” Shirin Neshat described her as “a pioneer, an artist who stayed the course at a time when the art world was oblivious to artists of color, particularly if their art was politically charged.” LaToya Ruby Frazier called Weems “a national treasure.”
When Frazier was studying for her MFA at Syracuse University, Weems was her teacher. Frazier said she remains “a source of inspiration and significant influence,” in addition to being a “dear friend.”
She was first exposed to Weems’s work two decades ago when she was an undergraduate. The sole black female student in her photography class, Frazier was having challenges talking about the images she was making of mother and grandmother, portraits for which she is now best known. Witnessing her struggles, her teacher gave her a 1993 catalog of Weems’s work. Frazier said, “…in that moment, I knew I was participating in a collective dialogue about race, class, gender, innocence, humanity and power with a community of black artists scattered throughout the world—with Weems at the helm.”
Sotheby’s – Lot 319: CARRIE MAE WEEMS, “Scenes & Take (Great Expectations),” 2016 (inkjet print on canvas, 36 3/8 x 71 3/8 inches), AP number 1 from an edition of 5, plus 2 artist’s proofs. | Estimate $60,000-$80,000. Sold for $67,500 (including fees
CARRIE MAE WEEMS, “Color Real and Imagined,” 2014 (archival pigment with silkscreened color blocks, edition 1 of 10, 2 AP). | via Pippy Houldsworth Gallery
THE ARTISTS ALSO EMPHASIZED her generosity and unwavering support for other artists. When her retrospective was up at the Guggenheim, Weems organized a public forum called “Carrie Mae Weems LIVE: Past Tense/Future Perfect.” Frazier described it as “a gathering and platform for black artists, historians, critics and curators to speak truth to power.”
Harris called the event “the most important cultural conference of that caliber since the Black Popular Culture Conference at the Dia Center for the Arts in 1991.”
He also said: “She doesn’t make concessions and that is part of what makes her a legend. She has never been seduced by fame or prizes or museum exposure. In fact, she occupies those financial and cultural spaces and opens them up to others.”
“[Carrie Mae Weems] doesn’t make concessions and that is part of what makes her a legend. She has never been seduced by fame or prizes or museum exposure. In fact, she occupies those financial and cultural spaces and opens them up to others.” — Lyle Ashton Harris
Following the Guggenheim gathering, Weems brought like-minded folks in the field together again on Dec. 17, 2017. This time for “The Shape of Things,” a convening at the Park Avenue Armory to talk about violence in America. Neshat said:
Her call for dialogue seems particularly timely in the current political climate in America. It’s my opinion that artists like Carrie are rare in how they mobilize and inspire other artists who may have fallen into a state of despair, questioning the place of art in a moment in history when we are faced with growing threats of fascism, and an art world that is primarily concerned with market value. Artists like Carrie Mae Weems elevate the role of artists within the cultural and political landscape, and reinforce the concept of art as a catalyst for hope and change to come.
Indeed, Weems is one of The Greats. About her expansive influence and reach, Yanagihara, the magazine’s editor, asked, “Where would black artists, female artists, American artists, photographers, be without Carrie Mae Weems,…?” CT
“Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video” documents the artist’s career retrospective and features contributions by Kathryn E. Delmez, Henry Louis Gates, Robert Storr, Franklin Sirmans, Deborah Willis. Exploring on of her earliest and most acclaimed series, “Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series,” presents the projects 20 photographs and 14 text panels, along with essays by Adrienne Edwards and Sarah Lewis.
READ MORE about Carrie Mae Weems on her website
In her Syracuse studio, Carrie Mae Weems talks about her seminal “Kitchen Table Series” (1990). | Video by Art21
CARRIE MAE WEEMS, “Cornered,” 2016 (split-screen video, runtime 3.5 minutes). | Video by Carrie Mae Weems
A behind-the-scenes look at “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now” by Carrie Mae Weems, responds to the police killings Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others. | Video by Art21
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