Carrie Mae Weems If I Ruled the World, 2004 © Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, NewYork / Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin.
Carrie Mae Weems’ first major UK exhibition begins with a surprise: Paintings? I didn’t know she painted! After you pass through the entrance, ground floor segmented by white curtains that both hint at and obscure the theatricality of the work to come, you are first faced with four large scale works of flat, colourful surfaces. They are, in fact, not abstract paintings, but photographs of boarded-up shop fronts in the wake of the 2020 protests after the death of George Floyd. Protest messages have been painted over in bold colour, creating these surfaces, and unwittingly visualising the processes that Weems has always highlighted with her work: erasures of violence in the first instance, and then the exclusion of black voices from history. These photographs set the scene brilliantly for what’s to follow - the exhibition bills itself as for now, for this moment, so this beginning at the (near) present moment, with an unexpected perspective on scenes that have become familiar, promises that the rest of Weems’ work will seek to unsettle existing ways of seeing, and make us (re)think.
We travel back to her earlier work in the next room: 1995’s 'From Here I Saw what Happened and I Cried' engages directly with history through its reconfiguration of original archival photographs. The series documents active processes of racialisation and dehumanisation in which enslaved people were posed as medical specimens, evidence of ‘race science’.
These photos are brought together with photos from other historical sources, unified through their red colouring and Weems’ words pasted into the images. Testimony of black people’s experience is thus brought back into the picture, the flattening use of photography is reversed through the return of a voice. From a place of compassion and ongoing pain, Weems shows us how the framing of photographs and narratives enables histories of erasure.
Critical confrontations of history, particularly the process of history-making, are a recurring subject in this exhibition. With 'Constructing History', Weems collaborated with college students to recreate key historical moments of the 20th century - Hiroshima, the assassinations of JFK and black civil rights leaders - in a visibly staged setting. The constant backdrop, visibility of cameras within the frame, asks the viewer to consider how narratives of history are staged and reinforced through performance. In the 'Roaming and Museums' series, monuments of cultural and political hegemony are confronted by Weems’ ‘muse’ - herself, dressed in mourning, turning towards these architectural testaments to a history of subordination.
Weems, in her own words, focuses on ‘examining cultural space,’ and asks her audience to participate in this process. With her most famous work, the 'Kitchen Table' series, she exposes the domestic setting as a cultural space outside of institutional framework. It’s split across two rooms here, which we can roughly recognise as two separate life stages. Her own subject once again, the series depicts snapshots from a relationship, then from motherhood, ending in three astonishing self-portraits. While the framing around the kitchen table remains constant, small changes in the setting mediate these situations. A dinner scene for instance - as Weems’ character assumes a nurturing, tender position towards her partner, a bird cage looms in the background. In another setting, photos of civil rights leaders adorn the wall behind a conversation with a friend. The photographs are interspersed with blocks of prose, describing a declining relationship and culminating in a single woman feeling ‘the fullness of her woman self,’ next to Weems positioned confidently in the centre of the frame, looking straight at us.
Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Woman and Daughter with Make Up) from Kitchen Table Series,1990 © Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York / Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin
Continuing this attention to the seemingly mundane, and returning to the questions of abstraction posed at the beginning of this floor, 'And 22 Million Very Tired and Very Angry People' responds to the late 20th century turn away from documentary photography. Here, Weems presents a collection of objects that, in their deliberate organisation, reveal the revolutionary implications of the everyday. Allusions to political contexts - for example, a nod to Frantz Fanon with a rolling pin captioned ‘by any means necessary’ - punctuate the narrative throughline in the added text, creating a poem as you progress through the room.
This sends us back to the first floor, where the curtains segment what is arguably the heart of this exhibition: 2021’s The Shape of Things, a film in seven parts, takes the stage on a curved screen that positions the viewer in an arena of sorts. This is Weems’ interpretation of a circus - she’s concerned with the theatricality of American politics, as The Shape of Things intersperses footage from older projects with scenes of the January 6th insurrection, and original montages which set the question of ‘How do you measure a life?’ alongside a conscious performance of bodies in the rain. The soundscape of this film permeates the entire gallery space, creating mounting curiosity as you move around the space and hear snippets of Weems’ spoken word. Its sonic and visual assemblages reflect on her larger body of work, tying together themes of visibility, memory and artistic mediation.
The curation of this exhibition does its title justice - ‘Reflections for Now’ demand an approach to history which refuses linear arcs and progress narratives. Weems says that reflection, for her, relates primarily to our own processes of considering our relationship to race, class, and gender. Positioned in this gallery space, her work achieves a sense of cohesion without tipping into totality - consistently returning to the same questions, asking us to reconsider and extend our perspectives, and insisting on no final answer. Her work feels alive, eager to spark the conversations that, as she so wonderfully puts it, will ‘elevate us out of our bullshit.’
Carrie Mae Weems: Reflections for Now: Taking the Retrospective Into the Future is on at the Barbican from 22 June to 3 September.
Edited by Samuel Blackburn