LONDON — A woman with an austere bun stands in a floor-length black gown, her back to the camera. First she’s pictured looking out at the Roman-era Pyramid of Cestius, then the 16th-century Jewish ghetto in Rome, then Mussolini’s Palace of Italian Civilization. These monumental structures tower over her, but her stance is stately and defiant. The woman is Carrie Mae Weems and the photographs form part of her series Roaming (2006), now on view in Carrie Mae Weems: Reflections for Now at the Barbican Art Gallery. In these carefully conceived black-and-white images, she poses as a timeless “muse” in front of architectural sites that chronicle Italy’s history of imperialism.
Roaming was one of the series included in Weems’s exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2014, Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video — her first significant show at a New York museum and, as the Guggenheim was keen to highlight, its first-ever retrospective dedicated to an African-American woman. What the museum was less vocal about is that the exhibition ran in parallel with a major survey on Italian Futurism, the controversial early 20th-century movement founded by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. One of the first members of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, Marinetti tried to make Futurism the official state art of Fascist Italy. In the movement’s manifesto, he stated his intention to “demolish museums and libraries” and “fight feminism.”
While the 300 works in the Italian Futurism exhibition were displayed through the Guggenheim’s main rotunda, the small selection of Weems’s pieces were relegated to its side galleries — though not because Weems lacked enough work to fill the main space. Her retrospective had toured multiple venues across the US and in its fifth and final iteration at the Guggenheim, it was cut down heavily. These baffling curatorial decisions reaffirmed the very points that Weems visualized in Roaming: the supremacy of dead White men in cultural spaces and the display of power through architecture.
At the Barbican, filling the gallery’s two floors, the retrospective gives necessary space to her extraordinary body of work from the last five decades. Though it spans the entirety of her career, it starts in the near present with a series from 2021 titled Painting the Town. At first glance the four large-scale works resemble mid-20th-century abstract paintings. On closer inspection they reveal themselves to be photographs of boarded-up buildings that have been painted in broad swathes of color.
Photographed in Weems’s birth town of Portland, Oregon, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the images document the urban walls where Black Lives Matter protesters’ graffitied messages were repeatedly covered up. The punning title in which Weems literalizes the clichéd phrase “paint the town” hints at her wry sense of humor. Overall, the series is a good entry point into her work, capturing many of the qualities that have come to define her practice: her clear-sighted commentary on contemporary politics, her subtle injections of the personal, and her keen awareness of beauty.
Formal perfection particularly characterizes her iconic works from the 1990s, such as the Kitchen Table Series (1990). In images and text, it tells the story of the turbulent relationship between an unnamed couple: “her” (performed by Weems) and “him.” The stage set for this domestic drama is the kitchen table, which becomes the site for eating, feeding, fighting, laughing, grooming, disciplining, playing cards, drinking, reading, embracing, sulking, smoking, teaching, self-pleasuring, despairing, and mothering. The series is book-ended by photographs in which Weems stares outward, knowingly, returning the viewer’s gaze.
Weems is always in full control of her camera, using it to comment on the history of the medium — whether 19th-century colonial ethnographic photography or blurry snapshots of modern-day protests. Sometimes her works are deliberately imperfect. The 2013 video “Holocaust Memorial,” with its lo-fi videography and jaunty soundtrack, almost seems like it could have been shot on a flip phone. This contributes to the sense of spontaneity in Weems’s ritual dance, between the columns of Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust memorial in Berlin, while also referencing the grainy footage of 1970s postmodern dance performances, their choreography informing the piece.
As I sat and watched “Holocaust Memorial” on the gallery’s second floor, I heard the sound of Jimmy Durante’s 1960s Broadway ballad “Make Someone Happy” floating up from the floor below — the closing track in Weems’s 2021 video “The Shape of Things.” At first I found this jarring, an inevitable pitfall of a video-heavy exhibition. But then I realized that, in this case, this slippage between works makes sense. They continually overlap and resonate with one another, showing the constancy of her artistic vision.
The show’s final works are part of the artist’s series Museums (2006–ongoing) in which — as a complement to Roaming — she photographs herself in front of famous museums around the world: the Louvre, the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Weems draws attention to the imperial origins of Western museums and, as she puts it, “who exists inside and outside of those spaces practically, culturally, historically, politically, and contemporarily.” It’s a smart and self-aware decision to place this series at the end of the exhibition — an admission of artists’ complicity, a nod to the fact that no gallery space is neutral.
Carrie Mae Weems: Reflections for Now is a fitting tribute to an artist whose work has taken on the monuments of the past, and has itself become a monument of a different sort. With its spacious displays and light-touch interpretation, the curation matches the poise and elegance of the art. More importantly, in contrast with the Guggenheim’s 2014 exhibition, this retrospective shows the absolute importance of reflecting on the politics of display when it comes to the work of an artist who explicitly and consistently implores her audience to do so.
Carrie Mae Weems: Reflections for Now continues at the Barbican Centre (Silk Street, London, England) through September 3. The exhibition was co-curated by Raúl Muñoz de la Vega and Florence Ostende, assisted by Amber Li.