I student teach on the Upper East Side at Hunter College High School on 94th and Madison, and I had a short teaching day where I finished around 9:45 a.m.. I left the school and was walking south on Madison and thought to myself that it was a nice quiet morning to go check out the Carrie Mae Weems exhibit at the Guggenheim. I had intended to see it since it opened on January 24th for my birthday, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I have been somewhat familiar with Carrie’s work was really looking forward to seeing the exhibition.
I walked into the Guggenheim at exactly 10:02 a.m., they opened at 10 a.m., so I was basically the only person there other than museum employees. They were setting up for the Italian Futurism exhibition that will open on February 21st, so it was a little chaotic, but I beelined it straight to the second floor where the Carrie Mae Weems exhibit began. I first walked into a room that was wallpapered with a black and white motif. Black and white photographs and silk screen prints hung on the walls, and in the center of the room was a table with white “fine China” style plates with phrases in the center of each plate that started with “WENT LOOKING FOR AFRICA…”.
The first thing I was drawn to when I walked in to the room was the table with plates on it, and of course I got out my phone to snap a picture. Much to my dismay, the guard stopped me before I could take a photo. But how was I supposed to remember this moment FOREVER?? I snapped a few sneaky photos while he wasn’t looking, so pardon the poor quality of the images. I was able to snap a photo of one of the art pieces in this first room that I found particularly moving:
Carrie Mae Weems, The Ebo Landing (From the Sea Island Series), 1992
The text reads:
“One midnight at high tide a ship bringing in a cargo of Ebo men landed at Dunbar Creek on the Island of St. Simons. But the men refused to be sold into slavery; joining hands together they turned back toward the water, chanting, `The water brought us, the water will take us away.’ They all drowned, but to this day when the breeze sighs over the marshes and through the trees, you can hear the clank of chains and echo of their chant at Ebo Landing.”
This piece along with the other pieces in the room were strong commentary on the history of slavery in America. Each piece in the room had its own narrative silkscreen print that went along with photographs. Being form the South myself, I particularly liked this piece with this idea of resistance to slavery. This is a very real commentary about what the first African American experience really was and the trauma surrounding the African diaspora. This art piece illuminates America’s dirty past dealing with slavery and race relations in general. As a child grown up in the South, we learn “white American History”, but we often do not talk about the dark side of American History in detail. We don’t discuss the African diaspora or the gross injustices of our forefathers on the Native Americans. What this series of photographs does is give a voice to the suppressed or hidden narratives in American History that are still often left out of the history books. Weems opens the dialogue for discussing what the African American experience has been not only in America’s past, but also in the present.
I wandered into the adjoining room which housed the Kitchen Table Series. I was already familiar with this series and eager to experience it in person. This series tells the story of love, loneliness, parenthood, solitude, and sexuality, all taking place at the kitchen table. Each image is a vignette from every day life, scenes that we can all relate on some level. It is this aspect that makes Weems artwork so emotionally gripping. We are voyeurs, but we are also in some ways in this kitchen ourselves. It is this commentary on the female experience, the African American experience, the American experience, and ultimately the human experience which makes us all relate to this series. Weems is able to create a strong narrative for each photographic series both with accompanying text and without.
Next, I went up to the fourth floor of the Guggenheim to view the remainder of the Weems exhibit. I first arrived at a bench in front of a television screen that was playing a film titled Italian Dreams. The film featured shots of an African American woman in Italy walking through Italian streets and weaving through classic Italian architecture. The film also played shots of white women laughing while wearing Afro wigs and riding in a car. This to me was a commentary on appropriation of African American culture. The film also showed an African American woman lying on a bed, wearing lingerie and red lipstick. She talking on a phone to a white man. In another scene an African American woman was lying on a table with her legs spread open with a white man sitting in a chair staring not at her, not exchanging glances with her, but staring into her spread legs. Both of these scenes are a commentary on the long tradition of African American women’s bodies being objects for white American men.
Next, I viewed Weems’ Museum Series.
Carrie Mae Weems, The Louvre (From the Museum Series), 2007
In this series of photos Weems is clothed in a long black dress, standing in front of a museum or similar chosen destination, with her back to the camera. These photos are a commentary on Weems feeling like an outsider to the art world as an African American and female. What makes this series particularly powerful within the context of being viewed in the Guggenheim is that Carrie Mae Weems is the first African American woman to have retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. This series on view within the museum setting is telling us who is “left out” of museum culture. It’s a great exchange. We ask ourselves why it is that there is so little representation of female and minority artists in museums and art curricula in general?
From here wandered into the next room and was totally unprepared for what I encountered. In front of me was the series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995 – 1996). I had only viewed half of the series before I had tears streaming down my face. I was able to snap a couple of poor photos of the first and last picture in the series, which were mirrored shots of an African woman with text silkscreened on each.
From Here I Saw What Happened…
And I Cried.
In between these were a series of photos in a circular format. They were red and black photos with white text silkscreened phrases on them. Instead of the narrative accompanying the series, it was printed directly on the photographs. The narrative was commentary on the African American experience in America and the African diaspora. From start to finish these photos take you through as if you’re a part of the journey.
The entire series can be viewed on Carrie Mae Weems’ website here:
I would definitely suggest taking a look through the series, it is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking pieces I’ve experienced.
In the adjoining room I found myself faced with a grid of colorful, individually framed pictures. In some frames the squares were just solid colors, and in some frames were portraits that were monochromatic, each a different color.
Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Colored People Grid), 2009 – 2010
The way the piece is arranged is both lighthearted and serious with the commentary being fairly obvious. The portraits within are of African Americans with Weems using varying vibrant colors for each photograph. We should ask ourselves why were dark skinned people in America labeled “colored”? This piece makes you think a little bit harder about the labels white society placed on African Americans (and even immigrants from other nationalities) from the time they stepped foot on American soil. This piece comments on who was considered to belong, and who was considered “the others”, and makes you question why. This piece also makes us think about how much of this has actually changed, and how much farther we have to go as a society.
Overall, the Carrie Mae Weems exhibit did not disappoint. It is an exhibit that I would love for my own students to experience. An exhibition like this is important because it provides a voice that has long been silenced by society, and a voice that has been left out of “mainstream” museums and traditional art curricula.