On Wednesday, Carrie Mae Weems was named the 2016 National Artist Award Honoree by the Anderson Ranch Arts Center. The award is given to artists who have innovated in their fields and across disciplines; previous recipients include Frank Stella, Theaster Gates, and Cindy Sherman. In a statement, Weems said receiving the award was “humbling,” adding, “I am a working girl who is so consumed and engaged with my work that I’m often surprised when anyone takes note.”
Over a four-decade-long career (Weems first laid hands on a 35-mm camera in 1974), the 62-year-old artist has used her lens to examine issues including sexuality, identity, and family. Weems, who also received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013, is known for her black-and-white images and videos that entwine the individual with larger historical narratives.
She’s proven to be as comfortable in front of the camera as she is behind it, often appearing in her own works—most notably as the protagonist in the “Kitchen Table Series” (1990). In her series “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried” (1995-96), Weems applied deep red hues to daguerreotypes of slaves, unearthing and attacking the original photographs, which, far from objective, were used to craft racist, pseudo-scientifically justified narratives on the supposed inferiority of African Americans.
In 2014, Weems treaded new ground, becoming the first African-American woman to receive a retrospective at the Guggenheim in its 56-year history. Writing for the New York Times, Holland Cotter lauded the show (while taking issue with its presentation) calling it “ripe, questioning and beautiful.” Though Weems and her work address subjects of African-American identity, parsing its complexities and its perception by white audiences, critic bell hooks has noted the broad engagement of Weems’s art, which “compels recognition of race and representation even as it moves beyond race to an exploration of gender and power that has universal implications.”