“One of the things that I’ve always been deeply interested in,” says Carrie Mae Weems, “is power.”
Gifted her first camera in 1973, Weems is revered as one of the most well-known photographers in contemporary art. Many artists have named her as an inspiration; from Mickalene Thomas to LaToya Ruby Frazier few Black image makers, emerging or established, do not feel the gravitational pull of her legacy.
After decades, her star has not waned. In January, her exhibition Down Here Below opened at Jack Shainman, her longtime gallery in Chelsea, Manhattan. Prior to this, a commission called The Shape of Things was on view at the Park Avenue Armory from December 2 through 31, 2021.
At the Armory opening, we sat together, and I queried her about her unrelenting career and its motivations, and about seeing the floodgates open up for Black artists in her lifetime, after years of breaking open the doors by force.
“It’s the question of power,” she said. “And who has it. How is it used? How has it been manipulated? What is my proximity to it? How do I negotiate it? How do I build pathways around it since I don’t have any, right? And still managed to do that with integrity and honesty and truth and trust.”
At its core, her work addresses exactly these questions, and they are also apparent in her trajectory as an artist. She is a woman deeply concerned with power and its consequences: in art, in ancestry, in history. Throughout her career, she has approached painful stereotypes with humor and wit; she has confronted the alienation and sexism of art history; she has reflected on dehumanization and racism over centuries.
For many artists, her photographs were the ground on which we found our footing — we have discovered ourselves staring back in Weems’s images. Her Kitchen Table Series, specifically, was the first body of artwork that I saw myself in. I pored over it as an undergraduate, enthralled by the artist’s mastery of light and composition as well as her firm grip on emotion, on feeling. Her self-portraits are not only revelatory about her inner world, but help us navigate Black womanhood, family dynamics, and history. A tenuous relationship exists in Weems’s work between glamour and guts; yet neither attribute suffers on behalf of the other.
Moreover, her compositions have so much style. They possess a graceful allure in their ability to present the mundane and the tragic through a striking lens, in which art, beauty, history, and politics are intertwined — as in life — beyond extraction.
Her website is among the most comprehensive of any artist I’ve ever encountered. I have spent many hours poring over the project archive over several years. On the site, a timeline of her personal and professional achievements is interspersed with major historical events, like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Also featured as major life events are her introduction to Marxism, the start of friendships with artists such as Dawoud Bey and Terry Adkins, and her co-founding of the Social Studies Collective with Deb Willis and Lonnie Graham. In 1999, she “Enters dark period,” while by 2013, she became a MacArthur Foundation Fellow.
In December 2021, she achieved another first. “I am the first African American woman to show at Drill Hall,” she told me at the Armory opening. She repeated herself twice more, speaking slowly and assuredly, her words hanging in the room: “I am the first African American woman to show at Drill Hall.”
“This is 2021. That’s significant. It is important. […] But I don’t have any illusions either.”
“Of course, I’m honored to be here,” she says. “[…] It’s important that I’m here. It’s important that I use this skin, as I’ve been using it for a long time, to advance our people, to advance Black people, to advance women. Really to use myself as a person who insists on advancing not simply myself, but what represent.”
What Weems said next rings in my ears, still. “They usually say the first one through the door is the most bruised, that you don’t do it easily,” she explains. “This bridge has been my back — and so I’m a little tender, I’m a little sore, I’m a little beat up. But I’m also happy that I’ve been able to chart a path of freedom for myself and for the people that I care about.”
One thing that has stuck in her mind, as of late, is how hard it is for “all artists […] to be in these institutions. At the Armory, using the circus as a metaphor, she addresses the greater institution that looms over all of our heads: politics. The exhibition includes all of the drama and splendor of a decades-past carnival, with none of the fanfare. At its center is Donald Trump, the ringleader, flanked by clowns of equal measure.
Drill Hall is a deep and depressing cavern. But tucked behind a veil is a lone doorway, a portal, foregrounding a glowing moon. The installation parallels a photograph from Weems’s Africa Series, “The Shape of Things,” and evokes the exhibition title. The photograph depicts the beautiful, soft facade of clay architectural structure. Its door leads toward blackness, into a room that we cannot see; above it is a small hole, or window. It recalls both a woman’s figure and a smooth abdomen punctuated by a navel. Weems’s reference to this photograph here reminds me of her constant conversations with politics, beauty, architecture, art, and her own oeuvre.
At the heart of the exhibition is a cyclorama projecting a seven-part, 49-minute film on a loop. It cycles through footage from the 19th century to today, alternating between calming yet invigorating imagery of people drenched by rain and snow and scenes of violent right-wing rallies; clips of 20th-century circuses; and a disturbing chronicle of anti-Black police violence. Despite its dire moments, the film reflects her instinct to seek beauty: it closes with a captivatingly glamorous snippet of the artist on a swing adorned with flowers, swathed in sequins and tulle, laughing as she sways.
Exiting the cyclorama, a door shimmering with golden lightbulbs guides visitors into an eerie hallway punctuated by framed images of the artist dressed in dapper suits and wearing animal masks. The hallways are lined by maximalist dioramas, including a memorial to dozens of victims slain by police officers, decorated with piles of stuffed animals, flowers, and helium-filled balloons, recalling a makeshift memorial you’d see on the side of the highway.
This vernacular expression of mourning, and of remembering, is critical throughout her career. In our conversation, Weems tells me one of the most important principles of her work is that it be “approachable”; grieving — and celebrating — should provide a means of connection to help us navigate power.
“I’m hoping that then somehow you see the work reflected back on yourself,” she says. “The work is really not about me. The work is really about you. Once you see yourself, then you’re able to move in a very, very different kind of way.”
“And the most important thing I believe, finally, is understanding,” she continues.
Reflecting on herself and her practice, what’s most important, she says, “is ‘Have I delivered on my own promise to myself as an artist, and a maker, and a woman, and a human? Have I told the story, or have I presented the ideas […] that I’m most concerned with?’ Whether I do that at the Armory, or I do it on a street corner, it doesn’t really matter. You have to maintain, and be true, to the work. And that is the thing that carries you forth.”