Carrie Mae Weems Explores the Influence of Perception on History

Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1953, Carrie Mae Weems has witnessed—and experienced first-hand—some of the 21st century’s most seminal social and political transformations, from the development of second-wave feminism to the monumental gains of Civil Rights. As a black woman, Weems felt with particular urgency the ramifications of these societal evolutions as they progressed, including their contradictions, failures, and setbacks, and her work as an artist over the course of the past three decades has continually affirmed a commitment to problematize the complexities of the histories she has lived.

Opened earlier this month at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London, “Color: Real and Imagined” unites a carefully curated selection of mixed-media series produced by Weems since the mid-1980s—including a number of brand new works—and comprises her first solo exhibition in the UK. Although she is celebrated primarily as a photographer, Weems has worked across a range of media, techniques, and materials. Often incorporating written texts, audio recordings, and videos, her finished products subvert stereotypes of race and gender to offer critical insight into the life of marginalized subjects, both locally and on a global scale.

The show opens with loosely documentary and even autobiographical series that are derived from the artist’s personal context. For her renowned 1990 series “Kitchen Table,” for example, Weems cast herself in every role: set against a generic, yet distinctly American domestic backdrop, she performs numerous archetypal identities associated with the life of a modern black American woman—getting her hair done at a dimly lit table; serving lobster dinner to a hungry guest. Over time, Weems’ vision has evolved to encompass a wide geographical and ideological scope, and later works explore the history of race within a more universal framework. Series such as Africa (1993), Slave Coast (1993), and Dreaming in Cuba (2002), for example, explore broader legacies of oppression and injustice.

Those impulses culminate in the exhibition’s most recent works, such as Untitled (Colored People Grid) (2009-10) or the eponymous Color: Real and Imagined (2014). Drawing on her history of subtle subversion, Weems employs the visual trope of a grid—associated with the taxonomic investigation of specimens, here interrupted by arbitrarily placed blocks of color that obscure the image—to point out a pervasive, and occasionally dangerous, tendency to categorize the world.  

 —Emily Nathan

Carrie Mae Weems | Color: Real and Imagined” is on view at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, Oct. 10–Nov. 15, 2014.

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