Look3: Carrie Mae Weems on Race, Sexuality, History and Finding Meaningful Work

Carrie Mae Weems, Deborah Willis

© Tristan Wheelock

Visual artist Carrie Mae Weems, who appeared on the main stage of the Look3 Festival of the Photograph last night for a conversation about her work with photo historian and curator Deborah Willis, is finally getting the recognition that she deserves. Weems recently received the Gordon Parks Foundation Award, and her rich, wide-ranging oeuvre from the past three decades is the subject of a touring retrospective exhibition.

As an artist, Weems is not easy to pin down. She uses primarily photography, but also written text, audio recording, video and fabric banners to explore a wide range of topics, including race, gender, sexuality, and power. A common thread to it all, she says, is “an overarching commitment to understanding the present by closely examining history and identity.”

But the work is far more playful and accessible than all of that makes it sound. Her work is grounded solidly in reality. (Take a quick tour here: http://carriemaeweems.net/work.html.) And like so many other photographers, she goes to work every morning, follows her interests, and figures things out as she goes along.

“I’m interested in photography and I’m interested in literature and I’m interested in film,” she explained near the beginning of her wide-ranging conversation with Willis. “I’m trying to figure out how to use those modes as a vehicle for expressing certain kinds of ideas…I’m just interested in whatever works.”

Her conversation with Willis, accompanied by a projection of her images, shed light on her artistic process with a grand tour of her various projects over the years . One of the best known is her “Kitchen Table” series, for which Weems used a kitchen table–that iconic object of American domesticity–to explore the experience of women in their role as mothers, wives, friends, and objects of sexual desire.

When she was working on the project around 1990, she was teaching at Hampshire College.

“Women were desperately trying to figure out the quality and place of their lives in the larger society. The one thing that I remember was that my female students had no idea how to image themselves,” Weems explained. “I was thinking about that in relationship to the way in which black women were completely invisible. So we were sort of running up against these two ideas simultaneously: young white women not knowing how to image themselves, and afraid of being objectified, and at the same time dealing with the idea that black women had never really been the object of desire, had never been constructed in that kind of way, so they were completely invisible, unless they served through popular culture and media and film the desires of white women, [in which case] they became the sexual voice for white women, which I thought was absolutely amazing.

“As opposed to someone complaining about it, how do you make something out of it? And Kitchen Table then sort of emerged out of that. And it was not only about black women, it was about women, it was about the lives of women, but using the female body to reconstruct and to re-imagine the way in which women generally could be understood,”

The subject of all the Kitchen Table photographs, playing the different roles of women, was Weems herself. She became her own subject for practical reasons. “I was the only one around who wanted to work at that time of the morning, because I get up really early,” she said. “And I don’t like telling people what to do. I’m solitary. I go out on my own. I don’t like asking for help. I find myself by myself. That’s where I came about this muse–this figure that stands in for me, and you, and for people that I’m interested in have a part of this conversation with…She [this alter-ego muse] has been very useful. She’s been a wonderful figure to play with.”

On a more serious note, though, Weems added, “It became very important for me as an artist and a woman to take a stand, and use my body as a marker–to be looked at, to be gazed upon, to be evaluated, constructed, manipulated, to figure out a space where female character and the black female character in particular could stand in for more simply than herself…it was a way of laying my own body on the line: that this body needs to be negotiated. and in one way or another you have to deal with it, you have to negotiate it, you have to ask the questions about your relationships to this subject, and this subject’s relationship to you, and what is the breadth of the relationship? I think that’s what I’m asking my audience to do with me: is to begin to unpack the problematized way in which black female subjectivity has been laid out.”

Another topic Weems has explored with her own body is architecture, and how it subjugates citizens to the power of the state (and church). In a series called “Roaming,” Weems photographed herself from behind as she approached various buildings, spaces, and settings.

“The thing that is interesting to me about work is that [it] tells you what you’re interested in. I did not know that I was so deeply interested in architecture until I came back [from travels in Africa] and started looking at work and paying attention to the kinds of pieces that I made,” Weems said. “I have a deep fascination with architecture and a deep interest in the power of architecture–these ideas about what buildings represent, and how [they] make us feel.

“I’m trying to understand the role of the state in the laying out of space, and how the citizenry is made to feel in relation to the state–the power of architecture, the sexuality of architecture has been an ongoing theme in [my] work.”

Sexuality is a recurring theme of Weems’s work (see “Not Manet’s Type,” “The Jefferson Suite” for instance). Observing that Weems’s work doesn’t shy away from sexual pleasure, Willis asked Weems about it.

“I feel so much through this body. That tells you so much what it needs to experience and to know. I don’t know how to be opaque,” Weems said. “I’m interested in the sexual because it rules the world…[which] is completely caught up in sexuality and sexual play. And the role of sexuality and sexual play is essential to our nature, [it is] beyond culture, it is beyond politics, it is the essence of who we are…we are constructing a lot of who we are, and what we are, [and] it’s really the construction of the tension of around sexuality that I’m interested in.”

In talking about her own work and development as an artist, Weems offered what amounted to some practical advice. She emphasized the importance, for instance, of reaching out to peers and becoming familiar with the work of others, past and present.

Weems explained that she came of age as a photographer in the 1970s, and had few role models, and no mentors at first. Hungry to find out who the African American and women photographers were, and what they were doing, she started sending letters “asking people to send slides of their work because I knew it was really important to have a sense of who had come before me.”

She also emphasized the importance of working simply, and focusing on the subject, not the gear and technical aspects of photography (in case anyone needed to be remind).

“I work with a beat up Rollei I traded a car for when I was in college a thousand years ago. I love this thing,” she said. “I’m very interested in the economy of means, in simple things and immediacy and being close to subjects. I’m trying to get away from all the nonsense, all the techno crap. so I can focus on what this is. If you’re true to the moment, and understand your commitment and relationship to it, there’s tremendous wealth in that.”

Weems stressed the importance of pursuing work that is personally meaningful. “I knew that I wanted to be involved in the arts [and] I knew that I wanted to have a dynamic life. I didn’t know what it was going to mean, but I knew that it had to be meaningful,” she said. “When young people come to me now and they ask me [for advice] I just keep thinking: Find that thing that you love, find that thing that you are deeply committed to…with the ups and the downs and the bounces, it will take you through, it will save your ass even when you are out on the [farthest] limb. But you have to trust it and you have to know what it is you desire and what it is you are committed to.”

–David Walker
Photo, above: Carrie Mae Weems (left) and Deborah Willis on stage. Photo © Tristan Wheelock

Our thanks to photographer Tristan Wheelock, who’s taking photos at Look3 for the Instagram feed of PDNOnline.

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