Among the most acclaimed artists of her generation, Carrie Mae Weems first rose to fame with her groundbreaking “Kitchen Table” series (1990). For these rich black-and-white photographs, Weems created various tableaux of Black women, and sometimes men, sitting at a kitchen table.
In one image, a woman runs a hair pick through Weems’s hair, two glasses of red wine in front of them. In another, a husband and wife eat dinner, and in a third, a mother applies makeup in front of a round beauty mirror while her daughter mirrors her to the right. Though these images are staged and not strictly documentarian, they showed the ways in which a kitchen table was, is, and continues to be an important space within Black American homes.
In the years since, Weems has continued to ponder what it means to be a Black woman living in this world today, whether by standing in front of major museums, which have historically been repositories of colonial plunder, or by grieving the young Black men and women who have been murdered by the state.
Her genre-defying work moves between installation, performance, and film and video. More recently, Weems has also begun to organize what she calls “convenings,” multiday symposia that gather top intellectuals, writers, poets, and artists.
Weems was last the subject of a career retrospective, “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video,” when it opened at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville in 2012. The exhibition traveled to four other venues, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2014; she made history then as the first African American artist to have ever mounted a retrospective at the Guggenheim since its founding in 1939.
Now, 10 years later, Weems is the subject of a new retrospective, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” which recently opened at the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart, Germany. With examples from 30 bodies of work made over the course of a four-decade-long period, the show marks Weem’s first solo exhibition in the country. Running through July 10, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen” is curated by Hans D. Christ and Iris Dressler, in collaboration with Fundación Mapfre in Spain.
To learn more about her forthcoming retrospective, ARTnews spoke to Weems by Zoom in early March during the final stages of the exhibition’s planning and installation.
ARTnews: You last had a major retrospective a decade ago at the Frist in Nashville in 2012, which then traveled to the Guggenheim in 2014. This past decade has been an extremely productive one for you, with the creation of several major bodies of work. How would you say your practice has evolved?
Carrie Mae Weems: According to my husband, I’m always busy—I haven’t stopped working at all. It’s been a very busy but very productive time. I developed a performance called Grace Notes: Reflections for Now that toured to a number of different cities: the Kennedy Center, Yale. I started that project around 2015.
I’ve always in some ways been involved in performance. The Kitchen Table was a performance piece; Roaming was a performance piece. I’ve always been in some ways involved in performance, even though I didn’t really think of it in that way, for many years. But then I switched to using performance in the work in a very clear and considered way—developing a piece for theater, learning to work in the theater—was a major shift. I’ve been looking at theater for many years. Often, I go to plays by directors that I like just so that I can see the set, so I can see how they’re working: what a set means, how to design a set, how to think about sets.
I think in some ways the work has really expanded. I’ve been known primarily as a photographer, but I’ve been making videos and building performances for decades. I’ve worked with musicians. I’ve worked as a producer. I produce concerts, which is something that I’ve always loved, and I’ve done that for many years, though I’ve never really thought of myself as a producer.
I think the public is now becoming aware of the many different hats that I wear. In that way, I think the work has taken on a sort of accordion structure. It’s really pushed outside myself, outside my known body of work as a photographer to really embrace these other forms. That’s been interesting and dynamic. The convenings that I do are also huge productions that take several years to develop, which has also been a part of my practice for a number of years. It’s a very interesting way of working. I think for me it’s really important because as much as I love photography—as a form, as a medium, and as a mode of artistic expression—it has never quite been enough for me, which is probably why I’ve always used text and music and other kinds of modes in order to get to the work because it allows for a broader stretch of imagination and method of working.
You mentioned that performance has always been key to your practice. Can you talk about why that is a generative mode of working for you, going as far back as the “Kitchen Table” series?
Initially, I thought that I was doing this because I was the only person available for it. If I decide to make something in the middle of the night, or at five o’clock in the morning, I could do that. I never had to make an appointment with anybody else. That was truly a part of it, that I was the only person around. But I think also there was something about the sense of my own body and my own physicality, the way that I look, the way that I comport myself, the way that I stand, and the way that I gesture—that also was really of interest to me. I come out of a dance background, so being aware of my physical presence in a space was also of deep interest to me, though I wasn’t really thinking about it so seriously in the beginning.
There’s something about my own physicality, and the ability to carry a certain kind of weight. I could exploit myself in a way that I probably wouldn’t necessarily ask anybody else to. If I need to get down on my knees and crawl across the scene, that’s something that I could do without imposing myself on others. I’ve grown to understand that my body has the ability to carry a great deal of weight and a great deal of significance, and that I could use that, that I could bend that in these unique ways that will allow me to construct the image that I really needed to make without having to negotiate with others about how that was going to be done.
In the vast majority of my work, I don’t really use other subjects. In part, I think that comes out of my lean away from documentary photography. I didn’t like the idea of surreptitiously taking somebody’s image on the street and then using it. Even though I made, I think, some fairly interesting images early on, it wasn’t a way that I felt comfortable working. I needed to conceptualize and theorize another way, [via] another mode of working that didn’t depend on the exploitation of others.
Why was that something that you felt uncomfortable with?
I came along at a time when the documentary mode, reportage, was an important way of working for contemporary photographers. I come out of that tradition, and it’s a tradition in a lot of ways that I absolutely admire. Robert Frank was one of my great heroes. Garry Winogrand was a fascinating image-maker. Diane Arbus is amazing. The thing, of course, that separates Diane from many of the male photographers is that it’s clear that she had a stated agreement with the people that she was photographing. They’re looking at her. They’re dealing with her. She is clearly presenting herself as photographer in relationship to the subject.
Most photographers, of course, didn’t do that. They were working very differently, and they were working on the sly. They had cameras that looked like they were facing the subject, but it was actually pointing to the left. The lens was rigged to photograph what was to the right of the camera. You have this kind of trickery.
I didn’t want to be involved in that. I was starting to think about photographs differently. My photographs didn’t have to be made on the street in order to be valid because they could be made in your living room, made in your bedroom, made in your backyard. It was a conceptual way of thinking about how to build a photograph that became very important to me. The thing that’s really interesting is that the photographs function almost as documents. The table almost feels like it’s a document and yet it’s a highly staged work and that I think in a lot of ways is its real appeal. Why it works so beautifully is that it has this sense of being from a very particular mode of working when in actuality it’s a conceptual form of art.
You mentioned earlier that the work has expanded over the years. Many artists, when they have major surveys or retrospectives, have talked about how they’ve always known and felt what they were doing in their practice, but upon seeing it altogether, it was a kind of “aha” moment for them. When you saw your last retrospective with all these bodies of works presented together, is that something you felt?
I’m endlessly surprised by the work. I think that the work is always much more advanced than I am because I think most of the time, artists are working out of the subconscious. They’re not working out of the conscious mind. It’s working out of this very, very deep place. It really does take you a moment—sometimes years—before you actually realize what it is that you’ve seen, what it is that you’ve made, and what it actually might really mean. In that way, I think it’s like dreams. You are catching up with the thing that it actually is. That’s a fascinating mode of discovery in and of itself.
I remember making a great body of work in Africa: beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I remember just being taken with these architectural forms and shapes, but I didn’t know what I had actually been looking at until I came home, made the prints. One day I realized, “Oh, that’s a woman’s body. That’s a man’s penis. Oh my god.” I hadn’t realized what I’d actually photographed until months later. And so therein, I think, is the great rub of being a visual artist and yet being also led in profound ways by our own emotions.
The exhibition includes examples from some 20 bodies of work, including “Museums” and “The Kitchen Table” series. How did you and the curators go about deciding which works from each would go into the show?
There are certain key works in a project that have the capacity to really carry the weight of the idea. The thing that is great about doing a retrospective is that it really does force you to consider very critically how each piece works within the series. Sometimes there’s a weaker image, and you realize that you knew it in the beginning, and now you really know it—or you know that you can live without it. The piece is still going to be very strong without it, and maybe it’s going to be stronger because you actually take it out. So that’s the demanding part of doing any of this: being your best critic, and being unafraid to edit even when you really love something. Knowing that life goes on, and it will be shown in another context one day, maybe if we’re lucky, fingers crossed.
In terms of the new retrospective at the Württembergischer Kunstverein, the press release mentions “an immersive spatial setting” that you are working with the curators to conceptualize. What does that installation look like, and why was it important for you to work on the installation design?
I spent half the night last night literally tossing and turning, grappling with what I needed one wall to look like—just one installation, just one small body of work. It consists of maybe 14 images altogether. The work has been made for years, but I have spent the last three weeks just trying to conceptualize what it needs to look like in order to function in the way that I need it to function. Not only how I want the viewer to understand the work, but how I need to understand the work—how I personally need to understand what it is that I am attempting to convey to myself and then to others.
So the design of a project, the layout, the mapping of the encounter is 75 percent of the work. It’s not just about each separate work—it’s about the work in total, and then each separate work. So how is it that I want you to sense the deeper meaning of the work? And have I done my job in doing that? Have I met you more than halfway? We know that the work is complicated. Images are complicated. How we read them is complicated. You can read them in any number of different ways, sometimes in ways that are completely outside the box and sometimes right on target.
So while I’m not trying to control the viewer, I’m really trying to aide the viewer into ushering into an exhibition of work that’s complicated and multilayered, without overwhelming and allowing for air, for breath, but also for density, meaning, and understanding. I don’t want them to be confused. I don’t want them to be lost. I want them to have the experience of a lifetime of a person that has delved deeply into a number of different issues that are related to class, gender, race, ethnicity, etc. So even when I don’t want to—even when I prefer to be doing something else—I have to deal with what the show looks like and how it feels.
I know the space, but I don’t know the space well, so that keeps me up also. I’ve designed 3-D models: How do you enter? What’s the first thing you see? What’s the first encounter? What’s the last encounter? All that really matters to me. I just can’t help myself. I can’t leave it to the curators, but it would be interesting to leave it to a curator and see what they would do, except I don’t really trust anybody. [Laughs.] That’s not really true. Working with Hans and Iris, and their team has been terrific. Hans will come back after long meetings, and say, “Ah I got this,” and be really on point every time.
What was that installation that had you tossing and turning?
Just in talking about, for instance, documentary photography and what documentary photography has been in the past. Sometimes it’s simply not true. You can photograph a person looking down, but actually they’re just looking down at their shoe. But it looks like they’re depressed. There’s a certain kind of trick. So I’m looking at this wall. They’re “Monuments” [black-and-white photographs of monuments, across the U.S.]—most of them I made many years ago in Gettysburg and at various monuments. Probably every town I’ve ever gone to I’ve photographed monuments, long before monuments became the thing that it is now—the dismantling of monuments, the reconsideration of what they are and how we need to think about them.
And so there’s a set of “Monuments.” And at the moment, I don’t quite believe the installation. I don’t believe that it’s right yet. So, on the one hand, in this particular case, one set of images are of Gettysburg, primarily American monuments, and then to the left of that right now are images of the Holocaust Memorial in Germany. They’re not positioned right. There’s something really wrong with this sort of positioning. They both operate as monuments, but there’s something untrue. I’m trying to get at what that is, and I don’t know yet.
I think it’s because they evoke such completely different emotions. A Holocaust memorial is a very particular kind of monument, and you can’t situate it so clearly to a monument from Gettysburg. They’re just worlds apart. Trying to bring them together feels forced and untrue. And that’s what I’m dealing with: the improper pairing of these things on the same wall. That’s the rub. So how does it need to be installed then to break that? I’m working this out as I’m speaking to you because I was literally up half the night thinking about it. But maybe they just have to go in very different places. They can’t be side by side because then there’s bound to be a misreading. It’s a really interesting problem, and it’s actually very upsetting.
It’s upsetting because of how different those two kinds of monuments are, right?
I think it’s just that. It becomes confusing for the viewer. It’s not true. There is no real comparison between these things, but if they’re situated next to one another, there’s a sense that I’m trying to make a comparison. It’s like I’m trying to say that these two things are linked and they’re not. It’s really a theoretical question.
How did those images of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin come about? They are debuting in this retrospective, correct?
I photographed the memorial sometime around 2006 or 2007, just as I was finishing up my “Museums” series, where I’ve been running around Europe, photographing myself in front over various important museums in Dresden, in Berlin at the Pergamon, et cetera. When I was in Berlin, I realized that the Holocaust Memorial had been finished, and I decided that I would go there very early. I’ve been very much interested in the Holocaust as one of the great disasters perpetrated on the Jewish people. I needed to recognize that. I needed to stand in that site. I knew that I really needed to think about its meaning and its importance.
Then I decided to do a series of dances in that space, my own private dance and my own private photographs that I made there. I’ve never done anything with the images. I made a short film of the dance, and I’ve presented that. But I’ve never done anything with the photographs until now. And so I thought showing in Germany, outside Berlin, might be an appropriate time to just share them, precisely because it was important to me, but also because it is a contested site as well.
It’s complicated. I might get dragged over the carpet for it. I’m sure that it will be questioned: Why? I think one of the great tragedies of the 18th and 19th centuries was the treatment of African Americans in the United States, which, of course, goes on and continues to repeat itself, as shown in Repeating the Obvious. To link that struggle for justice with that of Jewish people as well has been something that’s played out in the back of my mind for a long time. Two of the great human disasters: slavery and the annihilation of the Jewish people. We’re culturally and historically linked in a very unique way. It’s something that I can think about often.
Can you talk a bit more about Repeating the Obvious, a 2019 installation of 39 images, printed at various sizes, of a Black boy in a hoodie?
Repeating the Obvious is such a wonderful installation. It took me years to build that piece. I made the photographs maybe 10, 12 years ago. I lived with the image for a long time, looking at it, trying to really understand what could be made of this image that would take it somewhat out of itself. Understanding—with this idea of the ways in which history repeats itself, the ongoing devastation and the killing of young Black men—that I could just use the same image and I could multiply it across a room. I didn’t need a thousand faces. Just one face repeated over and over could carry the weight of the moment where we’re talking about the killing of George Floyd, the killing of Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or Sandra Bland. I can go on and on and on and on.
I’m excited to be showing the work, finally, in a serious way in Europe. The work has the ability to be translated across multiple cultures because there is an understanding of the problem. The George Floyd murder was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. We’ve been witnessing these murders in all kinds of ways for years. But suddenly, this one moment, this one was this one minute in the course of a history of 400 years that allows the world to finally understand what Black people are up against in America.
All over the world, people rushed out of their houses into the street finally to say, “This is unacceptable. This can’t happen.” For the first time in hundreds of years, a police person is held accountable, is in jail. Three men were just convicted for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. This has been happening for centuries. Finally, there is a conviction, and so this is a moment when I think the world is catching up with us and what we’ve been talking about. This insistence on some form of equity and the importance of equity and the importance of change that we can no longer be what we were and claim a greater humanity. We can’t do that. This is our moment to claim our humanity. There is no time like today. I think this exhibition is going to raise some very interesting questions that need to be discussed. It will provide a level of discourse that has been lacking across society for a very long time.
What’s the significance of the exhibition’s title, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen”?
The first time I saw the phrase was as the title of a James Baldwin book, The Evidence of Things Not Seen . Then I realized years later that it actually comes from the Bible, that faith is the evidence, that grace is the evidence of things unseen. Well, then what is that? Compassion, hope, love, charity. These are qualities that we look for in the everyday that we don’t often find. Occasionally, when we do, we feel grateful that we’ve seen it, that we’ve experienced it.
Going back to our exhibition, I am ever hopeful. Even in the worst of times, I am forever optimistic, forever dreaming. That we, as a people, can be more deeply compassionate, more just, that we can extend our hand to others as an aide. That we can receive that aid is just as important as being able to offer it. The ability to receive the kindness of others is as important as giving it. Sometimes we turn away from those who love us. We reject those who offer us a helping hand. These are really important but very basic ideas. And I think that somehow the work is deeply embedded in these ideas of faith, hope, charity, compassion, understanding, justice: the evidence of things not seen. Thank you, Baldwin, for bringing it to me.