CHANGED BY ART. Carrie Mae Weems is best known for her photography. Her work explores family relationships, racial and cultural identities, sexism, class, political systems and the consequences and disparities of power. Weems has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions at major national and international museums. Her work is currently on show at both Luma Arles and the Barbican in London.

Carrie Mae Weems, will you please describe your exhibition The Shape of Things at the Luma cultural centre in Arles, France?

The Shape of Things is a series of video installations and photographs that is an examination of very specific historical moments in the history of the United States, beginning with Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address and through the rise of Trumpism.

Why do you say in this exhibition that we cannot rise to the challenges of our times without confronting the realities of our past?

If we’re not understanding where we came from, what we do, what we’ve done, we certainly will have difficulty moving forward in our lives in a way that reflects the complexities of who we are. We do have the possibility to live a considered life.

You were born in Portland, Oregon, studied at various universities in California, and became a dancer. Now you are famous as a photographer. How did this come about?

I knew from a very young age that I was artistically inclined. I didn’t know exactly what kind of artist I would be, and I started as a dancer almost by chance. I’m a person who is in tune with the body and so I’m a natural mover, and people would see me and invite me to be a part of their world. I had the wonderful opportunity of working with the great Anna Halprin in San Francisco when I moved there as a young girl. I did all kinds of dancing: jazz dance, modern dance, free expression and street theatre. When I was about 18 or 19 years old I had a really awful boyfriend, but he gave me a camera for my birthday and I took to this device like a fish to water. I knew that it was the instrument that would bring together my multiple interests, that photography gave me a way of engaging myself in the world and engaging people in the world. It was almost like a natural calling, I just didn’t have the tool. And so my very bad boyfriend gave me a very good thing by passing me a camera.

“We do have the possibility to live a considered life.”

Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems at Park Avenue Armory where The Shape of Things was first shown in 2021.

Photo by Dan Bradica©Carrie Mae Weems.

Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin, and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Carrie Mae Weems, why do you explore through your art subjects like identity, power, social justice, and desire?  

As a very young person I was already an existentialist.  By the time I was eight I would walk out the back steps of my home and look at the sky and wonder about why we were here in this place and what my role would be in my life. I was interested in politics and social justice. What did it mean to live a life open and free? What were the deep problems of humanity that insisted that the role of power was to subjugate others? What is the voice of the subjugated and the oppressed and the beaten down and the terrorised, and how does that voice speak out? I was interested in all this very early, but I didn’t know how to express it then. Those ideas still inform the work contemporarily. The only difference over the course of my life has been how I engage, how I use words or performance or video installation or design practices in order to tease out these complex ideas in a simple way.

Is it because you are a black woman that in your work you have fought so hard for social inclusion? 

I’m profoundly aware of and understand well what it means to be discriminated against, to be systematically terrorised, to be systematically excluded. But I don’t think my work is simply about black identity. It has to do with humanity, and the complexity of humanity. This is really the meaning of inclusion.

In 1990, your Kitchen Table Series described many aspects of family life. Why is this an important subject in your work?

I began Kitchen Table in 1989 and finished in 1999. It has the ability to speak across any number of cultures, because we all gather in this common space around food, and food is prepared and served at a table around the world. Many people see themselves in this work; there is this immediate visceral reaction to it. It has incredible impact no matter where I’ve shown it. That tells me something about the power of work to deliver on a promise, to really speak to who we are, how we are, and how we engage with our families, our friends, our children, our lovers, our partners. What is the role of monogamy? What is the role of polygamy? It raises all of these questions. The kitchen is the heart of the house. It is where sustenance is found in every way, or denied.

You became the first artist in residence at Syracuse University in New York, nearby to where you live. What do you teach?

To be a teacher ultimately you have to really care profoundly about other people, and you have to like them. Otherwise you’re only there to serve yourself, and it’s about serving others, it’s about acting as a guide, introducing ideas that can be pursued and questioned. To be able to lead, to push, to act as an aide, to act as a mentor, to direct, to ask questions that allow for a certain evolution, is really the role of the teacher. We can all be teachers.

Are you a great teacher?

The time that I’m a great teacher is when I have completely given myself and aided my students in asking the kinds of questions that allow them to really pursue the depths of their own work.

“Most young people have no idea what it means to be an artist other than they’re in their studios making paintings or drawings or photographs or videos; but to be an artist is a lot more complicated than that.”

Carrie Mae Weems, how do you teach your students about the global struggles of humanity?

I’m the Agnes Gund Professor of Social Practice at Brown University, and last year I wanted my students to learn about how an artist like myself produces a body of work from beginning to end. How the work is developed, produced, designed and installed, and all of the questions that come up around the making of the work. I wanted to bring my class into my life: the way I approach the ideas, the works that I have built in relationship to that idea, and the way I plan to install that idea. That’s been very helpful, both to my students and to myself as a teacher.

How do you guide your students?

You guide by living your life, by how you act in the world, by how you are an artist in the world, and you allow people to really see what that means. Most young people have no idea what it means to be an artist other than they’re in their studios making paintings or drawings or photographs or videos; but to be an artist is a lot more complicated than that.

How do you proceed in your work?

Every series starts with a passion, with that beginning kernel that bursts forth, that drives you. Every idea starts with an imagining of the possible and the deep feeling that there’s something to be learned by pursuing this emotion, this idea, this concept. Then I begin developing and reading and gathering the materials. Sometimes that means looking at what others have done in a related way, sometimes going out and responding to the world.

Can you give me an example?

I had a conversation with my mother during the Black Lives Matter moment. George Floyd had been murdered. We all had a chance to witness this on TV, on video, on YouTube, in whatever way we were receiving our information. A series of protests erupted. I had already produced a major body of work around the killing of young black men in the United States, because there had been an unprecedented rise in the killing of young black men during the time that Obama was in office, and when Obama left office there was a decline in the killing of young black men. I produced a series of work about this called Grace Notes. I also produced a series of photographs around it called All the Boys. 30 years ago, I made a ceramic plate with a text that said, “Commemorating every black man who lives to see twenty-one.” That project I started in 1995, and in 2023 I’m still working on what it means to be a black man in the United States. I’ve produced many different works in different kinds of media around this idea of the killing of black men.

What did you do when George Floyd was murdered ?

I organised a group of filmmakers in various towns to go out and collect information and film for me because I couldn’t be in all of these cities simultaneously. I directed them on Zoom and through the phone, gathering visual material that is now in my archives. Then I flew to Portland, Oregon, to photograph the nightly demonstrations that were happening there. Every single downtown store was closed and was boarded over, and everything was painted in this ramshackle, disharmonious way. I went up and down almost every street of downtown Portland, photographing many of the buildings and the stores that had been boarded up and painted over. Out of that came a body of work that is called Painting the Town. It’s on view at the Luma Foundation right now. The work is a continuation of other projects, of a set of ideas that began many years ago and that continues to this day. Painting the Town is another way of looking at what this violence has meant over the course of time, and the way in which now communities are responding to that violence.

Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems. Kitchen Table Series. Untitled (Woman Brushing Hair)

Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems. Painting the Town 2021.

Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems. Painting the Town 2021.

Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems Park Avenue Armory The Shape of Things 2021. Photo Dan Bradica

Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems Park Avenue Armory The Shape of Things 2021. Photo Dan Bradica

Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems Park Avenue Armory The Shape of Things 2021. Photo Dan Bradica

“Many of the discussions continue to happen around notions of the black artist, as opposed to the best artist. We are still sidelined in a very particular way.”

Carrie Mae Weems, would you say that art has an impact on society?

It has a profound impact, and as we move deeper into the 21st century, when we have computers that are taking over our lives and AI and robots that might be doing all of our work, the thing that we turn to more and more is culture, art and painting and sculpture and music. I can imagine what my life would be without my computer, but I can’t imagine what it would be without that search for the deep, because art is really simply the search for the deepest meaning of your life. We’re always looking for something that reflects back to us what our lives mean, and the closest thing that we have to that is beautiful music or great literature or amazing painting. We enter the space of the artistic because we want to be transformed, and even if I am an artist other artists are deeply inspiring to me because they allow me to ask myself and to confront the deepest questions that I have about who I am and what I am, even when I’m still searching it out. And I’ll be searching until the bitter end. I have been changed by art, and I’ll tell you a quick story.

Please do.

I’m working on a project recently about my grandfather. His name was Frank, and I never knew him as a child. He was a union organiser who worked for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in Arkansas, and he was severely beaten and run out of the state of Arkansas, disconnected from his family forever. My sister had been doing a lot of family and historical research about our grandfather, but we had never seen a photograph of him. We had no idea what he looked like; we only knew that he had moved to Chicago. One day my sister sends me a photograph of my grandfather saying, “Here it is Carrie!” I decided to make a project based on him. The photograph shows him in his lawyer’s office in Chicago, preparing to sue the State of Arkansas for his mistreatment. When I started the project I simply thought of it as an exploration of a man that I happened to be related to. When I finished and was showing the work somebody asked me what did I learn from making this video project about my grandfather.

And what did you learn?

I realised that in the course of making this project I had finally developed a position that I never knew that I would agree with. That was to look at truth and reconciliation in the United States, and to look at the question of reparation for systematic racism and mistreatment and the dissolution and the disruption of lives and families. I went into this project not thinking that reparations in the United States would ever be an issue that we could resolve, or that would even matter. That we needed to move on, there were other things for us to think about in our lives, and that in trying to rectify the past there was no money that could assuage families for the crimes that had been committed against them. But then I changed my mind. I thought that I might be able to continue the lawsuit on the part of my grandfather and that I should pull together a group of lawyers and that we would produce a mock trial that examined the questions of reparation in relationship to the story and the life of Frank Weems, who is my grandfather. I went into this with one lens, and making and producing and living in the story pushed me to a position that I did not know I would ever have.

Do black artists have a stronger voice nowadays?

We are certainly trending in a way that we weren’t five years ago! (laughs) Not only in the visual arts, but in film, TV, theatre and literature. An explosion has taken place. It is absolutely wonderful and exciting, and we now know that there are terrible black artists out there in the world, just as there are terrible white artists. We are at a moment, and there’s an emergence of talent, of curators, of museum practitioners, of extraordinary artists that I’m learning about for the first time. We have a new lens looking at the world, and that’s not just African-American, it is black and brown people generally throughout the diaspora. We are hearing a rise of a voice that is expanding our knowledge in profound ways that anybody smart who cares would truly want to embrace.

Do you have an optimistic view to a world of tomorrow where all kinds of people can express themselves and be accepted?

Yes, this extraordinarily exciting time gives me the opportunity to learn about new artists and new ways of thinking. There’s so much going on, it’s really difficult for me to even figure out exactly where to start. Maybe it would be a good idea to take a class in contemporary art and the humanities so that wonderful professors can introduce me to some of the emerging artists that I need to be paying attention to at the moment.

In March 2023 you were the first black woman to receive the Hasselblad Award, a very prestigious international photography prize, from the makers of that famous camera?

I was so surprised and delighted, and I can’t wait to get my new Hasselblad. It’s one of my favourite cameras. It’s absolutely beautiful.

Is there anything else that you would like to say?

Yes. When I started as a young photographer one of my first major projects, besides making my own work, was pulling together a history of African American women involved in photography. I spent years studying this, lecturing about this, organising and thinking through the material and its meaning. My hope was to be involved as a practitioner and as an educator in broadening our understanding of what the field of photography and the visual arts was and could be. That needed to be studied by serious scholars and academics, so I have organised convenings and conferences and symposiums systematically over the years. I am deeply grateful that things have changed, that a number of women, a number of people of colour from various cultural backgrounds, have come into the fold in a way that is unprecedented in the history of the west. BUT the work of women artists, including me, is still historically undervalued and underappreciated. The exhibitions are happening and are shown, but the work itself often is underpriced, and it’s not regarded in the same way or at the same level. Many of the discussions continue to happen around notions of the black artist, as opposed to the best artist. We are still sidelined in a very particular way. This is wonderful territory to be explored by young art historians and curators, to begin the serious work of allowing people of colour and women to enter the deeper frame of modernism and to stand alongside the great men. There have been great women. But they’re rarely seen together.

Carrie, good luck for your shows at Luma and the Barbican in London, and thank you very much for having been with me today.

Edited Portrait of Carrie Mae Weems © Rolex/Audoin Desforges

All images © Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin, and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco