In her 30-year career, Portland-born photographer Carrie Mae Weems has collected a long succession of accolades and honors, with approximately 50 solo exhibitions around the world, honorary degrees from numerous institutions, and, most recently, a MacArthur Genius Grant. This year, Weems gets the distinctive honor of becoming the first African-American woman to have a retrospective at the Guggenheim — her first major exhibition at any New York museum, ever. It’s one of those honors that sits at an awkward intersection, both disappointing and profound. Disappointing because it has taken this long for the Guggenheim to recognize an African American’s work is such a capacity, and profound because Weems’s work in particular feels strangely appropriate in this space, at this time.
In the days since the debut of Weems’s exhibition (coupled with a beautifully edited catalogue from Yale University Press), there has been discussion not only about its historic significance, but also about the significance of how it’s situated within the Guggenheim itself. Curated by Kathryn E. Delmez and initially presented at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville (the Guggenheim is the final stop on a national tour), the original retrospective has been cut down extensively, with Weems’s moving exploration of Gullah culture, the Sea Island Series, only excerpted, and other important works such as The Hampton Project, which explores ties between African and Native Americans, cut out all together. And it’s true: the exhibit, split in loose chronological order between two of the museum’s Annex Level galleries, does somehow feel incomplete.
This isn’t to say that what is on display is in any way diminished. The photographs and videos that populate the exhibit still tell an important story, interrogating black identity, gender roles, family, domestic spaces, and human relationships. The story plays out powerfully in Weems’s seminal Kitchen Table Series (1990), in which she’s featured as a sort of everywoman in various domestic scenes. In Colored People (1989–90), she explores color as metaphor through pigmented portraits of young black children that challenge colorism (the disturbing culture of favoring lighter skin within the black community), with loaded labels like “Magenta Colored Girl” and “Blue Black Boy.”
The show also includes some of the artist’s more recent work with the moving image, which, she explains on her website, “represents a shift that allows me to finally negotiate the space between museum culture and popular culture.” She does this with the playful “Afro-Chic” (2009), paying homage to an often politicized black hairstyle with a fashion show set to Marvin Gaye’s “Sanctified Lady.” There’s also “Coming Up For Air” (2003–04), one of Weems’s more ambitious forays into video work, screened twice a day in the Guggenheim’s New Media Theater. The nearly hour-long video presents an eerie and affecting montage of images and vignettes that all deal with relationships — those between sisters, fathers and sons, and, most interestingly, black men and white women.
In New York, Weems’s Museum Series (2006–present), originally included in the show at the Frist Center, has been separated from the retrospective as its own supplementary exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The series features the artist wearing a black dress, standing with her back to viewer, an anonymous outsider standing before the imposing architecture of museums like the Tate Modern, the Louvre, and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. The photos clearly highlight the exclusion, the lack of representation of black artists, for which Weems herself has publicly critiqued art world institutions. Seeing these images away from the Guggenheim — and the images at the Guggenheim away from the rotunda — feels like a slap in the face to Weems, particularly since this is the last stop on a national tour, which should ostensibly be a crowning moment of her career.
I love museums, but I do question them. The reality is that, as far as I know, I can count the black women artists that I know on a hand and a half. And I can count the ones who have had major exhibitions on one hand. So, I’m aware of the condition and the circumstance under which I live. I understand what’s really going on. I know that museums are changing. I know that museums that are not changing absolutely need to change.
The displacement of the Museum Series from the Guggenheim’s already condensed Weems exhibition speaks to the exclusion and separation that Weems and other accomplished black artists continue to experience. There may be a myriad of reasons why the full retrospective could not be put on display at the Guggenheim, or why it took 50 years for a major museum to recognize a black artist in this way, but in the end, what matters is access: access for black artists and access for the underrepresented people of color to be able to see themselves in the kind of work that Weems does. While it’s important to recognize the Weems exhibition as the milestone that it is, it’s equally important to question how, going forward, institutions like the Guggenheim will acknowledge artists like her in the future.
In April, Weems will be at the center of a weekend of public programs at the museum featuring fellow artists, musicians, writers, and others. These happenings are designed to explore, in her words, “the cultural process of brown people.” The community and fellowship that Weems’s work has the potential to generate lies at the heart of this exhibition, independent of how many floors it may or may not take up. The most significant thing about Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video is not what a retrospective at the Guggenheim means for Weems, but what a Weems retrospective means for the Guggenheim. And what that might mean, as Weems herself urges, is change.
Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video continues at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 14.
Carrie Mae Weems: The Museum Series continues at the Studio Museum in Harlem (144 W 125th Street, Harlem, Manhattan) through June 29.