By Dawn Watson
Carrie Mae Weems is an artist first and foremost. But she’s also one of the most boundary-breaking social activists of her time.
The multi-talented Ms. Weems, known primarily for her photographic images and video installations, first picked up a camera when she received one as a gift for her 20th birthday in 1973. After nearly a decade of studying and learning her craft from professional photographers, her “Family Pictures and Stories,1981–1982” was exhibited in California. Following that, her images, including “Colored People, 1989-1990,” began to make their mark in various exhibits around the country. Then “The Kitchen Table Series, 1990” happened. Those photographs, exhibited in Manhattan, put her on the map artistically and showed the world her exploration of the feminine viewpoint as it relates to everyday life.
More than three decades after her first exhibit, the artist doesn’t necessarily dismiss the mantle of social activism, but she’s not shouting it from the rooftops either.
“Social activism may be a term that others have used in relation to me but I’m more interested in the broad strokes of the work and in being a critically engaged woman,” says Ms. Weems, who will speak at Guild Hall in East Hampton on Sunday, July 26, at 3 p.m. “I am very interested in a critical inquiry of the institution of power, though. That’s definitely in my work.”
Since “Kitchen Table,” she’s emerged as a major creative voice, and as an artist with a message. Ms. Weems has earned a number of prestigious awards, including the MacArthur Genius grant and the U.S. Department of State’s National Medal of Arts. She has had her work shown at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo in Seville, Spain and venerable New York institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others.
Ms. Weems’s creativity has caught the attention of more than museums. In 2010, Hillary Clinton honored her at a State Department Dinner. That same year, Michelle Obama saw her “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 1995-1996” at the Museum of Modern Art and was moved by what she saw.
The First Lady was actually at the museum to see an exhibit on Tim Burton, the artist explained last week during a telephone interview. But she happened to glance down the hall and catch a glimpse of Ms. Weems’s work,
“She said, ‘wait a minute, what’s that?’” the artist reported. “Then she came over to take a closer look. I was so stunned when I heard that.”
Ms. Obama was so taken with the work that she invited Ms. Weems to the White House. The First Lady is a fan, and a collector too, now that a friend gifted her with a piece from “The Kitchen Table Series” not long ago.
“When she invited us to the White House, all I could do was applaud,” says Ms. Weems. “It was like, yay, there’s my girl.”
The artist’s latest endeavors include a residency with the Ford Foundation and a teaching stint at the School of Visual Arts. She, along with a dozen others, is participating in a yearlong Visiting Fellows Program on the interplay of art and social justice at the Foundation. The program, “The Art of Change,” is meant to “engage a wide cross-section of artists, cultural leaders, scholars, activists, and leaders in social justice movements to think about important questions, changing constructs, and emerging possibilities and shed new light on the role of creativity and free expression in shaping a more equitable future for all,” according to the Foundation.
Ms. Weems said that for her part, she is focusing on the contributions made by Barack Obama, both before and during his presidency.
“There was this extraordinary momentum that we have been witness to. He’s a dark horse who became the first African American President. And he’s done it all—new laws, health care, visiting a prison and looking for ways to reform—with virtually no help,” the artist says, adding, “he’s delivering on his promise.”
“This is major shit and this brother is baaaad honey,” she laughs, continuing. “I really need to thank him in a significant way.”
To show her appreciation, she and a group of like-minded artists are sending him a gift of art called “The Presidential Suite.”
“It’s to thank him for his contribution to our lives. To salute him and mark what he’s meant to us,” says Ms. Weems.
In the meantime, she’s got plenty of her own work to do, which includes her talk at Guild Hall and getting down to it with a whole new slate of new pieces. Life is busy, but extraordinarily good, she says, noting that what she’s able to do today has been made possible by those barrier-breakers who came before her.
“I feel like I came along at the right moment in history; I’m so happy to be alive and to make my work,” she enthuses. “But I didn’t do it alone. So many have paved the way for me, and for that I’m extraordinarily grateful.”
Carrie Mae Weems will give a dynamic visual presentation and lecture at Guild Hall in East Hampton on Sunday, July 26, at 3 p.m. The talk is free. For additional information, visit www.guildhall.org.