Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Weems’ interest in art was sparked by those African-American

 artists who revealed something special about the Black experience



Carrie Mae Weems 

Photographer (1953-   )

Recent Work (2003)  / The Fabric Workshop (1994)


Nationality: AmericanOccupation: Artist, Photographer


Born: Portland, Oregon, 1953. 

Education: California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, B.A. 1981; University of California, San Diego, M.F.A. 1984; University of California, Berkeley, M.A. 1987.

Career: Teaching assistant, University of California, San Diego, 1983-84; teacher, San Diego City College, California, 1984; teaching assistant, University of California, Berkeley, 1987; assistant professor, Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts, 1987-91; assistant professor, California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, 1991. Artist-in-residence, Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, New York, 1986, Light Work, Syracuse, New York, 1988, Art Institute of Chicago, 1990, Rhode Island School of Design, 1990; visiting professor, Hunter College, New York, 1988-89. 

Awards: Los Angeles Women’s Building Poster Award, 1981; University of California Fellowship, 1981-85; University of California Chancellor’s grant, 1982; California Arts Council grant, 1983; Massachusetts Artists Fellowship (finalist), 1988, 1989; Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, 1992; Photographer of the Year Award, Friends of Photography, Ansel Adams Center, San Francisco, 1994; National Endowment for the Arts Visual Arts grant, 1994-95. 

Agent: P.P.O.W., 532 Broadway, New York, New York 10012, U.S.A.

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From Carrie’s Kitchen Table and Beyond

By Dana Friis-Hansen Senior Curator, Contemporary Arts Museum

In the course of her fifteen-year photographic career, Carrie Mae Weems has created a rich array of documentary series, still lives, narrative tableaux, and installation works. Her art balances rich and universal themes with the specifics of personal, cultural, national, and world histories. Often mixing hard realities with a personal vision, some works are pointedly political, bitter with the pain of past injustices and still prevalent prejudices, while other work is playful and even celebratory. The work presented here, the Kitchen Table Series, 1990, supplemented with several related works, was created during a richly productive period between 1987 and 1992. During this period Weems expanded the perspective of her work from the personal (her family’s experiences) and the political (racism) to broader issues of gender relations, individual identity, and parenting.

The daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers who moved to Oregon in the 1950s, Weems relocated in San Francisco after high school to study modern dance. While working in a clothing factory to support herself, she became politically active in the labor movement as a union organizer. She came to visual art as an adult, receiving her BA when she was twenty-eight and her MFA at thirty- one. Weems received her first camera as a twenty-first birthday present and, at first, used it as a tool for political rather than for creative purposes. Later, she saw a book of images by African-American photographers, The Black Photography Annual, which inspired her to pursue art seriously.

Weems’ interest in art was sparked by those African-American artists who revealed something special about the Black experience, who spoke to and about the rich, broad spectrum of her culture. One key body of work which she mentions frequently as an inspiration is The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a 1955 photo and prose-poem essay by photographer Roy DeCarava and poet Langston Hughes, both African-American New Yorkers. Examining the relationship of Weems’ work to DeCarava’s, critic bell hooks has written: “She was particularly inspired by DeCarava’s visual representations of black subjects that invert the dominant culture’s aesthetics… DeCarava endeavored to reframe the black image within a subversive politics of representation that challenged the logic of racist colonization and dehumanization.”1

Weems’ first major body of work, and a key precedent for the work presented in this exhibition, was the series Family Pictures and Stories, begun in 1978 and completed in 1983, which combined casual images of her relatives in their daily lives with audiotaped interviews and printed commentary. The artist explained about this work:

My work reflects my desire to understand my experience in relation to my family and my family’s experience in relation to black families in this country…. I am fascinated by the distances between people in the same family, between men and women, and between ethnic groups and nationalities through the use of language derived from experience. There’s a certain language that comes out of sharecropping and cotton farming, that comes out of the way men and women, women and children, and women and women share experiences. That’s the vitality of language.2

Weems’ subsequent work was more political—interrogating the lingering racism which lurks in the locker room or in office jokes or on household knick-knack shelves. Her 1987-88 Ain’t Jokin’ Series paired straightforward portraits of African-Americans with racist jokes, using satirical incongruity to provoke in viewers—of any race—a sense of shock and shame at their recognition of internalized racism. Another series, American Icons, created from 1988 to 1989 takes the form of domestic still lives inhabited by stereotypically racist figurines such as “Aunt Jemima,” “Steppin- fetchit,” or “Uncle Tom,” which function to preserve notions of white supremacy. At the time, Weems was engaged in graduate studies in the Folklore Program at the University of California, Berkeley, a research center which collects stories, superstitions, images, and objects from everyday “material culture” as clues to understanding society. Utilizing such details—loaded fragments of culture—has become a strategy she uses often.

By the late 1980s, Weems started to broaden the scope of her work, moving from issues of race to gender. During that decade, women artists in general gained increasing voice and visibility within the art world. Photographic artists such as Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, and others who came to public attention in the early 1980s used tableaux and images rephotographed from high art and pop culture to explore issues of female identity.3 The discussion of art at this time was often linked to semiotics, political analysis, and psychoanalytic theory, and one key text was British film critic Laura Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” published in 1975. Drawing specifically upon ideas from psychoanalysis, Mulvey posited that “the image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of men” is what defines the spectacle of cinema.4

In the Kitchen Table Series and other related works, Weems sought to go beyond this prevalent discourse about the all-powerful “male gaze.” The artist asserted, “These [works] were made at a moment when—as a result of theory–a woman didn’t know how to construct an image of herself. The image-making was starting to follow the theory of Laura Mulvey, etc. rather than the other way around! There was a fear on the part of visual artists to take control of our bodies, our sexuality. I was trying to respond to a number of issues: woman’s subjectivity, woman’s capacity to revel in her body, and woman’s construction of herself, and her own image.”5

The current exhibition features four works which precede the Kitchen Table Series and help set the stage for the issues it addresses. Untitled (Hat on bed), 1987, Untitled (Portrait of a woman), 1987, and Untitled (O’Jays), 1987, each deal with male/female relations, superstitions, and expectations using folklore, body language, and pop culture references.

Untitled (Jim, if you choose), 1987, was the first image shot at the table which soon would become quite familiar in subsequent series. Like many of the Ain’t Jokin’ series, Untitled (Jim, if you choose) combines a portrait with a short text printed onto the negative. Responding to the racist assumption that African-American men are unable to support themselves or their families, Weems’ caption adapts the opening lines of the 1960s television show “Mission Impossible.” The work focuses on the social and economic roles of African-American men, pointing directly to gender, identity, and family relationships also raised in the Kitchen Table Series.6

Twenty images and thirteen text panels comprise the Kitchen Table Series, which pivots around the experience of one woman (played by Weems) who appears in every frame. Of the fourteen works (three are triptychs), she appears alone in five works, in another five she is joined by one or more other females, while in the remaining four a gentleman is visiting. The square composition remains constant throughout the series: under a single hanging light, one person appears at the far end of a table. Sometimes he or she is joined by others on the sides. There is always a place for the viewer at the near end of the table, which comes right to the edge of the frame, mimicking a seventeenth century still life compositional strategy used to make a scene more intimate. Yet this device also helps us sense the space as a proscenium theatre, a set where the drama will unfold.

Weems directs a visual narrative that is simple enough to “read” without perusing the separate texts. Most are single, declarative images, though three triptychs rely on sequential imaging to resolve a more complicated incident. Weems is exploring a full range of life’s complex emotional experiences—desire, seduction, isolation, commiseration, companionship, responsibility, independence, and self-reliance. The artist relies on the modern viewer’s media literacy, as we recognize the plotlines through our familiarity with a range of narrative forms from comic books and photo-novellas to soap operas or sitcoms. For example, by placing the phone in the foreground of Untitled (Woman and phone), Weems makes us feel the tension as she waits for that call. 

The care offered in Untitled (Woman brushing hair) reveals an intimate friendship while the triptych Untitled (Women with Friends) captures the solidarity of sisterhood in three acts. These images are as crisp and graphic as film stills, yet with Weems both behind and in front of the camera, as both “auteur” and actor, the result is worlds away from Mulvey’s “male gaze” or the spectrum of cinematic stereotypes played coyly by Cindy Sherman.

From the first image, Untitled (Man and mirror), we see a strong female character who dares to look out directly at the viewer, or to simply ignore our presence.

Early in her career Weems was introduced to the writings of Zora Neale Hurston.7Their Eyes Were Watching God features a “female hero…on a quest for her own identity…who defied everything that was expected of her.”8 Weems’ heroine shares qualities with that novel’s main character, yet Weems brings the image of a strong Black woman into the contemporary moment. The Kitchen Table Series explores human experience not only from the vantage point of a female subject and viewer, but also from an African-American point of view. Weems has commented, “One of the things that I was thinking about was whether it might be possible to use Black subjects to represent universal concerns.…” Hollywood’s use of white subjects offered her little inspiration. “I wanted to create that same kind of experience using my subjects.”9 While its visual presentation features Black actors and Malcolm X posters, it is in her texts that Weems injects the tone, timbre, and voice of the African-American experience.

Rather than explanations or captions, the thirteen text panels interspersed amongst the images offer a counterpoint to the pictures: an ever-changing mix of real conversation, storytelling, internal ruminations, or lyrics from a Blues and R&B soundtrack. Family Pictures and Stories includes an inter-weaving of both text and audio tapes of real voices. The contradictions between text and image in the earlier series, Weems explained, “…bring up notions of the interpretation of experience, of make-believe, fiction, storytelling, and folklore. They are all part of the truth.”10

Weems’ texts were first “written” as spoken words; on a driving trip she recorded the commentaries onto tape, transcribing and editing them later. Actual voices provide authenticity and context, as she has pointed out: “For hundreds of years people have used the oral tradition for this purpose, breathing life into days gone, times remembered, and stories told.”11 All of her texts are sprinkled with African-American slang, sayings, and song lyrics that literally provide “local color.” About her use of text, one critic wrote: “Trained as a folklorist as well as an artist, Weems has found the implications and subtlety of folklore more interesting than text used didactically; for her it’s an unmediated form of communication that has the ability to speak more directly to deeper issues. . . . Through the language of African-American folk wisdom, culture, and the blues, Weems attempts to locate her own voice, in a present-day extension and reinterpretation of tradition.”12

Weems periodically creates works in unconventional formats that suit the needs of the message she seeks to send, and this exhibition includes two examples created in the same period as her Kitchen Table Series. In Commemorating, 1992, an editioned series of twenty works (of which eight are shown here), she chose as her medium Lenox china dinner plates, ivory ringed in gold, with a text in the middle. Providing an alternative to the racist figurines which populate her American Icons series, these collectibles celebrate the achievements of both familiar and lesser known African-Americans and those who helped the cause. Plates play a functional domestic role, yet these elegant objects reaffirm a forgotten history.

When Weems was commissioned by Liz Claiborne, Inc. to create poster designs for public service announcements against domestic violence,13 she chose to use three images in the now-familiar kitchen table format, with male, female, and child actors. Their dramatic poses and strongly toned message extended Weems’ concerns about gender relations into a larger and more public arena.

With their deftly staged photographs and richly written texts, the work in this exhibition is fresh, insightful and inspiring. As has been said of The Sweet Flypaper of Life which so inspired her, Weems’ contemporary images and texts are “wed in a most perfect union to tell the story of ordinary people who work and play, love and hate, marry and divorce, raise children and let them go, and who cope extraordinarily.”14 Weems achieves a broad and universal narrative which provides important insights into the human condition while speaking through the experiences of women and African-Americans. From her kitchen table, Carrie Mae Weems has staged a worldly drama.


1 bell hooks, “Diasporic Landscapes of Longing,” Carrie Mae Weems (Philadelphia: The Fabric Workshop, 1994), reprinted in bell hooks, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New York: The New Press, 1995), p. 67.

2 Carrie Mae Weems, interview with Lois Tarlow, Art New England (August/September 1991), p. 11.

3 Others include Sarah Charlesworth, Jo Ann Callis, Ellen Brooks, Sylvia Kolkowski, Jo Spence, and Anne Turyn.

4 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, 16, No. 3 (Autumn 1975), pp. 6- 18, reprinted in Art after Modernism, Brian Wallis, ed. (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), p. 372.

5 Carrie Mae Weems, phone interview with the author, February 6, 1996.

6 Parts of the Kitchen Table Series and the Commemorating series were included in the important exhibition Black Male at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1995.

7Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was an African-American novelist, folklorist and anthropologist active during the Harlem Renaissance.

8 Mary Helen Washington, “Fore-word,” in Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God  (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1990), pp. viii-ix.

9 bell hooks, “Talking Art with Carrie Mae Weems,” Art on My Mind: Visual Politics  (New York: The New Press, 1995), p. 76.

10 Carrie Mae Weems, quoted in Lois Tarlow, op.cit., p. 11.

11 Carrie Mae Weems, quoted in Brian Wallis, “Questioning Documentary,” Aperture (Fall 1988), p. 64, cited in Andrea Kirsch, Carrie Mae Weems (Washington, D.C.: The National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1993), p. 22.

12 Kellie Jones, “In Their Own Image,” Artforum (November, 1990), pp. 135-36.

13 These posters were part of the Women’s Work program launched by Liz Claiborne, Inc. in 1991 and administered by the art advisory office Y-CORE. Weems was one of five artists whose work was reproduced on over 200 San Francisco billboards and bus shelters.

14 Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes, The Sweet Flypaper of Life (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1984), book jacket.

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From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 1995–1996

Operation: Activate, in collaboration with Social Studies 101, 2011

Carrie Mae Weems talks about her work  / Carrie Mae Weems—Art:21

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Carrie Mae Weems

Interviewed by Dream Hampton


In the under celebrated world of black visual artists, Carrie Mae Weems is a legendary godmother. Her deep and vast historical knowledge is peppered with personal, sometimes uproarious anecdotes. As a lecturer she exposes her students at Harvard and other universities to a century of work by abstract black artists who would’ve remained invisible in their syllabi. For more than 25 years her photos and videos have been exhibited at more than 50 galleries and museums. She often approaches her work as an anthropologist, investigating racial, sexual, and cultural identities and histories with her lens. Her work concerns itself with justice. Weems’s digital work includes video collaborations with jazz pianist Geri Allen. A recent project recreates iconic moments in the mid-20th century; she recasts the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to take a second look at collective mourning and a photo series she’s currently creating is an homage to the great black women singers like Nina Simone, Lena Horne and Abbey Lincoln, who, she says, are “ascending into the ethos.” She’s as at home with Nobel prize winning authors and grand dame divas as she is with other visual artists. Her speaking voice is as muddy rich as any jazz singer’s, and her stories dance.

Dream Hampton: So much of your work employs text. Who have you read that has changed you?

Carrie Mae Weems: The people who move me in really, deeply profound ways are Samuel Beckett and Toni Morrison. I go back to Waiting for Godot as a way of imagining all that is possible, of dreaming. Toni Morrison reminds me of Tolstoy and other Russian writers more than other American writers. Russian writers have been thinking of themselves as oppressed people for so long that they exist in this twilight space, where struggle is just genetic.

Dream Hampton: Why are black abstract artists so absent from fine art history and scholarship?

Carrie Mae Weems: I’ve been thinking of Black writers and visual artists in relationship to Spanish magic realists, like Marquez. There are surreal spaces where African-American writers and artists often go but it doesn’t get called that. We haven’t been talked about in terms of levels of invention. To the extent our work isn’t discussed as being inventive, it’s often dismissed. It gets dismissed as representational and thus derivative and third tier. So I’ve been thinking a lot of the nature of invention and the creative output of black artists. I’ve been thinking about new painters like Mickalene Thomas, or people like photographer Lorna Simpson, Larry Neal…or the way Gary Simmons using chalk as a kind of erasure to speak to this ignoring of our work. I can remember 20 years ago when Wynton Marsalis started doing tours across the country in churches giving lectures about Ellington and Armstrong and regular folk got to experience Wynton as a musician and an intellectual, we need that! We need to connect people to this history of work and artists.

Dream Hampton: Which black visual artists do you teach when working with art students?

Carrie Mae Weems: I begin with Elizabeth Catlett, Norman Lewis, Charles White, Aaron Douglas, Romare Bearden and Roy DeCarava.

Dream Hampton: Please tell me about your “Constructing History a Requiem to Mark the Moments” 2008 photo series at the Jack Shainman Gallery which included the photos “Veiled Women,” “Mourning” and “The Endless Weeping of Women,” centralize women in these iconic historical snapshots. What is that series about to you?

Carrie Mae Weems: There is am important role that women play—as makers of history as much of witnesses to history. The death of Malcolm [X], with Betty [Shabazz] and their daughters in the front row at the Audubon. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, with Coretta [Scott King] cloaked behind her black veil. I thought it might be important to pay attention to a series of re-enactments of a period that was central in my life and in American life, a time of cultural and personal shifting.

Dream Hampton: You are unabashed in advocating overtly for social and/or gender justice in your work.

Carrie Mae Weems: I can’t help myself. The ongoing challenge is to be authentic to yourself no matter what. I can’t make images like I did when I was 20, or 30, I’m almost 60. I’m not trying to figure out who I am as an artist, I know who I am. I think that we grow into what we are. That we are who we are from the beginning and our experiences simply grow that same person we were as children. Right now I’m working on this project there I’m looking and manipulating at photographs of Nina Simone and Lena Horne and these seminal voices that have not only shaped my life but helped me make my life, I take it as my responsibility to keep them alive and present in my own work and all of these women had voices in the world.

Dream Hampton: Please tell me about a night that changed your life.

Carrie Mae Weems: I had a night in Paris where I hung out with Nina Simone and Toni Morrison! At that end of the night I felt like if I died right then, I’d be alright. The artist Mary Lovelace O’Neal and I happened to have residencies in Paris at the same time, so we decided to roam the city. She gets an invitation to go to a dinner for Toni. That particular year all of the French schools were reading Toni. At 6pm there’s the dinner for her at the American Embassy. It’s October and she’s just lectured and it’s just been announced she’s to win the Nobel. We walk into the Embassy and across this palatial room there was Toni Morrison sitting alone. When she saw these sisters dressed to the nines, she waved us over. I couldn’t believe the esteemed Toni Morrison was sitting alone at a gathering meant to honor her! I grabbed a waiter and ordered a bottle of champagne and within three minutes Mary Lovelace is in her lap. The night was a total success, we shared stories and acted like we were in our living room. Me and Mary were leaving, giddy, and a friend drives by, sees me, stops, and says ‘Carrie Mae! What you doing in my neighborhood?’ I said ‘I’m going with you!’ and he says “Good, cuz I’m going to meet Nina Simone!” We pile into cabs and we walk into this bar and there’s Nina, sitting alone. I couldn’t believe in two separate corners of Paris, these two legendary women were sitting alone in corners. I’d never met this woman before in my life and the FIRST thing she said to me is “Girl, I wish I had someone to love me.” So I sat there and I drank with Nina Simone and listened to her.

Source: LifeandTimes

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label ‘trafficked’ does not accurately describe migrants’ lives and that the ‘rescue industry’ serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice.

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update 2 March 2012




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