Carrie Mae Weems – artist, pioneer, mentor

Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 5 Parts, 2012. All images  © Carrie Mae Weems

Ahead of Weems’ first major UK show at the Barbican, we speak to Zora J Murff, Antwaun Sargent, Tyler Mitchell, Roxana Marcoci and more about how her work has impacted their practice

“One of the things I’m always thinking about is the nature of influence,” says Carrie Mae Weems. “The ways in which artists are constantly influencing, speaking, appropriating, borrowing and loving from one another. We are always affected by the things around us and we are always responding.” This notion of the collective creative spirit and its ability to bring us closer has always been a central tenet for Weems. For the last four decades, she has transcended the realm of contemporary art, assembling cross- disciplinary creatives, from musicians to social activists, in conjunction with her practice. “[Influence] knows no bounds,” she says. “We are always riffing off one another.”

This summer, Barbican Art Gallery in London presents the first UK show of the celebrated artist, broadening the areas of reflection and influence around her. With many works never seen before in the UK, this landmark exhibition, publication and extensive public programme constellate Weems’ complex and compelling practice, illuminating her incisive advocacy and performance while investigating themes of beauty, power, desire and history-making. Co-curated by Florence Ostende and Raúl Muñoz de la Vega, the exhibition will take visitors through her radical oeuvre, from the early iconic The Kitchen Table Series (1990) to her epic film installation, The Shape of Things (2021).

Weems is disarming in her ability to move the viewer, to entice them into participation, to confront their prejudices and to claim history as their own. These are qualities Muñoz de la Vega believes are critical for British audiences. “There’s an urgent necessity to engage in certain conversations collectively in the UK,” he says. “The division in society doesn’t stop growing, raising important questions: How do we want to live together? How can we cultivate interaction with different communities? How can we redraft the social contract? What is our responsibility towards the following generation? Carrie Mae Weems has explored these themes, and in presenting her work, we hope to start a poignant dialogue about the current moment.”

For Weems, influence is not simply about collective agency and shifting consciousness; it is also a practice of care – a way to actively shape the future in the present. “I’m always aware of the people who widened the path for me, so I could work a little easier,” Weems said in an interview with Artsy. “And now, I have to use my skin and my body to push for an even wider path so that another group of young artists who are coming behind me can work, live and be, and produce more easily than ever before.” In that spirit, artists and curators speak about their encounters with Weems’ work, her influence on their life and practice and how she has paved the way for the next generation.

Untitled (Woman & Daughter with Make Up), Kitchen Table Series, 1990

Zora J Murff

“I was introduced to Weems’ work early on, but the first time I saw it in person was in grad school. I’ve always enjoyed The Kitchen Table Series because it positions Blackness as commonplace. In visual culture, what’s often centred is the trauma associated with Blackness and the overcoming of that trauma. While those aspects of history are important to know, The Kitchen Table Series allows Us to just be.

“A body of work that influenced my practice is Slow Fade to Black (2010). I deeply appreciate how Weems handles the materiality of photography through dynamic presentation and use of the archive and reinterpretation. I was floored by Untitled (Ella on Silk). Her blurring and printing of an appropriated image of Ella Fitzgerald left a lasting impression on me. I play with imagery – both my own and appropriated – in my practice because of that experience.

“Weems exhibited her series Blue Notes (2014–2015) when I was in the early stages of researching and making work about American anti-Black police violence. My first struggles in creating work in that context were working with violent imagery and situations aesthetically and the politics of bringing those visuals into the ‘white cube’ and academia. Learning about Blue Notes helped me feel emboldened to always follow my artistic instincts. One of the deepest lessons I’ve learned from the range of her practice is that indulging the impulse to say what you feel needs to be said is the move.”

If I Ruled the World, 2004

Antwaun Sargent

“I don’t recall when I first encountered Carrie’s work, but I remember the first time I saw her speak. It was at a museum speaker series in New York. With her signature deep clarity, Carrie narrated her seminal series, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995–96) the history of photography as a history of violence and freedom. As she moved across the 33 toned prints, I cried. It was the most powerful use of images and words I have ever witnessed. 

“Without Carrie’s contribution to the canon, the field of photography would not be where it is today. She has improved the field by using the medium to give herself permission. Her example has acted as a clarion call for others to participate in photography.”

A Scientific Profile Quad with Oval Frame, 1995-96

Jess T Dugan

“I’m continually struck by the way Carrie uses photography and narrative to talk about social justice, history and the marginalisation of certain bodies and identities, often through the telling of a personal or individual story.

“I’m interested in artists who use their own bodies in their work, as Carrie and I do. There is something important about taking up space and being seen, particularly when you have been socialised not to do that because of gender, race or sexuality. There is something vulnerable about placing your body in the frame, but it is also an act of strength and empowerment; I’m interested in this duality. I also think sharing your personal experiences creates space for others to own their truths and share their stories.”

Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 5 Parts, 2012

Roxana Marcoci

“Carrie Mae Weems has placed Black women and feminist world-building at the forefront of interrogating the historical complexities and structural consequences of unchecked power. In her advocacy and compelling practice – in still and moving images, performance and verse work – she has been a force of radical transformation. Often using herself as a protagonist, she has reimagined and reconstructed the heritage of African American cultural identity from a feminist African-diasporic perspective. Weems is one of the most creative voices of the 21st century, whose actions of caring and intervening in a long history of systemic injustice by giving voice, as she has asserted, ‘To a subject that historically has had no voice’, is consequential to this political moment.

“The Kitchen Table Series, where the artist’s kitchen becomes the setting for explorations of selfhood, of questioning ideas about the relationships between men and women, women and children, and women and other women, is a landmark. I recently installed one of the works from this series, Untitled (Woman and Daughter with Make-up), at MoMA. It shows Carrie applying make-up in front of a mirror while a young girl, in front of another mirror, puts on lipstick and looks at her reflection. 

The two enact beauty in a synchronised performance through posing, mirroring and empowering. ‘Their self-gazing,’ the literary historian and theorist Salamishah Tillet noted, ‘is a reparative act – an act of care, and a declaration of Black womanhood, visibility, and Black beauty.’ What is visible in this image is both the power of Black interiority and the grace with which it is expressed. This musing image reflects a glimpse of the self-sustaining feminist future. ‘In one way or another, my work endlessly explodes the limits of tradition,’ Weems declared in an interview with her friend, the artist Dawoud Bey. ‘I’m determined to find new models to live by. Aren’t you?’”

Tyler Mitchell

“I remember always running into Carrie’s The Kitchen Table Series images on Tumblr. I remember [the works’] arresting power upon first sight. At NYU, under Professor Deborah Willis, we studied how Carrie inserted herself and narratives of Black womanhood and motherhood into the centre of the canon of photography.

“Her way of rethinking who and what deserves space, care, attention, focus and power in this world inspires me. For me, that’s part of what photography is all about – refocusing the public’s eye towards urgent life concerns. Carrie is consistently an ongoing presence in contemporary culture because her images are both ahead of the times and last the test of time. That’s what makes her a pioneer.”

Rose Marie Cromwell

“During my graduate studies at Syracuse University, I studied under Carrie in art and civic dialogue class. She gave a lot as a teacher; her lectures were performative and compelling, and she knew how to draw you in. She also didn’t mince her words during critiques. She brought us the truth as she saw it, and while at the time it could be painful to hear, I am so thankful for it years later. 

“Carrie taught me that you should investigate the lineage of your artistic projects – how you got from point A to point B. What are you questioning in your work, and what are you fighting for? What always resonated is that for her, art that doesn’t strive for a better world, art that doesn’t seek justice, or art that wasn’t socially driven wasn’t moving the needle. I have been writing and rewriting my artistic mission ever since.”

Untitled (Woman Standing Alone), from Kitchen Table Series, 1990

Ryan Prince

“Coming from a fine art background where I was exposed to classical white painters within the Western canon, then moving into photography and seeing work by Carrie Mae Weems was a transformative experience. I realised this is the type of work I want to create, work that speaks to people on a personal level, the way Weems’ work spoke to me.

“Weems’ work significantly informed my practice, especially The Kitchen Table Series. To me, this series speaks to the notion of Blackness not being monolithic by consciously making an effort to show the layered existence of what being a Black woman is for her. She focuses on everyday, quieter moments, which can often be overlooked yet evoke so much power. These are the things that guide my practice.

“Seeing Weems explore the intricacies of her identity as a Black woman taught me not to be afraid to explore my own identity through my work. Placing myself in front of the camera, trying to locate my essence, my voice, was very cathartic and became an essential part of my practice. There is power in taking control over how you wish to be presented, and having sovereignty over your identity is something I will keep exploring.”

Carrie Mae Weems, Reflections for Now, is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, from 22 June until 3 September

Gem Fletcher

Gem Fletcher is a freelance writer who contributes to publications such as Aperture, Foam, The Guardian, Creative Review, It’s Nice That and An0ther. She is the host of The Messy Truth podcast - a series of candid conversations that unpack the future of visual culture and what it means to be a photographer today. You can follow her on Instagram @gemfletcher