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Artist Carrie Mae Weems visits Emory to 'think together the big questions'

As the final speaker in this year’s Provost Lecture Series, photographer and video installation artist Carrie Mae Weems explored the legacy of African American identity, class, culture. Emory Photo/Video

Carrie Mae Weems will never stand still long enough to look back. 

However, it is clear that, at age 65, the photographer and video installation artist is taking stock — of her life, the world of art and our cultural moment.

Her lecture, “A History of Violence-Heave,” delivered April 8 at Glenn Memorial Auditorium, was the final installment in this year’s inaugural Provost Lecture Series.

In the words of Provost Dwight A. McBride, the series was conceived “to inspire and to think together the big questions and challenges we face and to collaborate on innovative solutions. This is how great universities make their impact on the world.”

Like the previous lecturers, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. and Joy Buolamwini, Weems more than made good on the series’ promise.

Starving artists

“I still don’t have any money.” Weems’s first words made the audience laugh. But for those who know her career, the levity is underscored by seriousness. Weems hasn’t hesitated to call out issues of unfair compensation for artists, especially based on gender and race. 

Weems is the recipient of dozens of honors, including the prestigious Prix de Roma, a 2013 MacArthur “Genius” grant and a 2014 retrospective of her work at the Guggenheim Museum. She is represented in public and private collections around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

As a female artist of color, Weems has repeatedly demonstrated that she will not squeeze through any door where privilege and exclusion wait on the other side. In the case of the Guggenheim, Weems was the first African American woman to have a retrospective there, something that she considers “shocking.” And she recalls a time, not that long ago, when she would read the arts section of the Sunday edition of the New York Times and “cry because there was never anything about black artists in one of the greatest papers in the country.”

Weems will never stop pointing out the line between inside and outside, who belongs and who doesn’t. In fact, armed with “only a toothbrush and camera,” she in 2006 “ran around the country” photographing herself in black with her back to the camera outside museums, highlighting the exclusion of black artists.

In a major profile of Weems in the New York Times (the style magazine, not the art section) in 2018, “The Museum Series” (2005–2006) is described this way: “The spectral figure appears … outside the Louvre, the Pergamon, and the Tate Modern, the kinds of institutions that, feeling their authority increasingly in question, now call upon Weems to tell them how they might remain relevant.” 

Beg, borrow, steal

Building her talk at Emory around the concept of influence, Weems said, “My work doesn’t just emerge from the deep well of my emotion. I am extremely selfish; I spend a lot of time looking at what other artists do.” That led to her reflections on appropriation, which includes loaded words such as stealing, comparing/contrasting, negotiating, borrowing, exploring and disrupting. 

In the visual arts, Weems noted, the idea of the original has been sacrosanct, with the copy considered to be a violation. For Weems, appropriation is absolutely necessary, “underscoring what has come before — the past — in order to chart ways into the future.”

And she didn’t clinch her points only by reference to other visual artists. In fact, she raised the roof with some music clips. Declaring that “music has saved my life more than once,” Weems played a rousing rendition of Aretha Franklin singing Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” 

An artist’s body of work, for Weems, is not confined to a painting on a wall, a CD in a jewel case. It is the whole person. Franklin, she said, “was deeply involved in her moment. She was an activist in the civil rights movement. She was a diamond shaped by extraordinary pressure, a pressure meant to destroy her.”

She went on to describe the roughly 10-block area in Detroit where so many black musicians  were raised — among them, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. Ross watched Robinson rehearse songs on his front steps; Gladys Knight and Martha Reeves lived just a few doors from each other. Picture summer in Detroit, windows open and sounds mixing, energy rising. This is what Weems means by influence, appropriation.

Like Franklin, Weems has gone out of her way to be as deeply involved in her cultural moment. She co-founded Social Studies 101 in Syracuse, New York, where she makes her home, advising youth about creative pursuits and helping them avoid being the victims of violence through a billboard campaign called Operation Activate — this despite her confession that “I am not even crazy about kids. I got involved to help them and then realized that they are helping me.” 

Weems also collaborates widely with many artists, including, recently, Lee Daniels and Spike Lee. She hosts “convenings”— the last of which saw her assemble artists, musicians, poets, activists and intellectuals at the Park Avenue Armory in New York under the title “The Shape of Things,” an examination of different histories of violence. 

All this activity, output and passion, beyond its intrinsic value, is about getting the questions right: “What are the important questions that will guide you through your life?” Weems asks. They are different for everyone, she explains, but “there are only a couple that you should keep coming back to.”

Finding the right questions means, to Weems, living life fully — charging through every open door and knocking down the closed ones. And don’t just target art galleries. “Any organization that wants to be relevant will have to get with the program,” she explains.

“We come to institutions like Emory and wonder who we can be. Emory is here for you and because of you. You absolutely belong. It is important not only for you but for the development of the institution itself.”

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