By Rida Ahmed
Race, class and political ideologies are just some of the major issues that divide society and some of the issues that have formed the basis of Carrie Mae Weems’ complex body of work during her 30-year career. Since taking her first picture, storytelling has been the principal focus of her work, conveying the human condition, through mediums such as fabric, audio, installations, video and photography.
Weems was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1953. Her love of art flourished early when she began participating in street theatre and dance at the age of 12. A few years later she moved to San Francisco to pursue a career in dance when she was invited to attend Anna Halprin’s San Francisco Dancer’s Workshop. A birthday gift in 1973, a 35-millimeter camera, introduced Weems to photography and laid the foundation for her artistic career. The very next year Weems enrolled at the San Francisco City College to study photography and in 1981, at 27, she received a BFA at the California Institute of the Arts. She went on from there to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of California, San Diego.
Weems blends critical social insight with artistic mastery. Some of her works over the last thirty years have included; Ain’t Joking (1987),From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995), The Louisiana Project (2004), Roaming (2006). Her most famous project, Kitchen Table Series, debuted in 1990. In it, Weems tells the story of a modern black woman seated at her kitchen table and depicts her experiences with love, loss, sadness, motherhood and independence through images and text. Her art portrays the cruel reality of race, class, and gender discrimination with the resilience of the human spirit. Weems’ impressive body of work has garnered many accolades and achievements including Prix de Roma, The National Endowment of the Arts, the Alpert, the Anonymous was a Woman and the Tiffany Awards. In 2012, Weems received one of the first US Department of State’s Medals of Arts and in 2013 she was the recipient of the MacArthur Grant and also received the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
In addition to her work as an artist, Weems is also an activist and educator. She has been involved in Operation Activate - a public-art campaign in Syracuse that fights gun violence – which is part of Social Studies 101, a collective Weems founded to reach a more diverse audience. Social Studies 101 is also responsible for starting the Institute of Art + Style, a program that introduces high school students to careers in creative industries such as music and fashion.
Regarding her own work, Weems has said, “Despite the variety of my explorations, throughout it all it has been my contention that my responsibility as an artist is to work, to sing for my supper, to make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals; to beautify the mess of a messy world, to heal the sick and feed the helpless; to shout bravely from the roof-tops and storm barricaded doors and voice the specifics of our historic moment.”
To learn more about Carrie Mae Weems and to view her work, visit her website.