Artist Carrie Mae Weems finds a home away from home at Grace Farms
One of the nation’s most influential artists of the last 30 years is coming to the Grace Farms center in New Canaan.
She is Carrie Mae Weems and if the name rings a bell but doesn’t conjure a clear image, that is because Weems is multi-dimensional. At first a dancer, she gained breakout fame as a photographer, most notably for her “Kitchen Table Series,” a collection of 20 staged photos with text first exhibited in 1990.
But her repertoire also embraces video art, performance art, public art projects and public speaking. She has been described as a crossover figure, bridging the gap between art and politics. A recent New York Times profile summed up the unsummable, asserting that Weems has entered “the cultural mythosphere.”
The winner of a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, in 2014 she was the first African-American woman to have a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. She appeared as herself in Spike Lee’s Netflix series, “She’s Gotta Have it,” and has been cited as an influence on Beyonce’s storytelling “Lemonade” videos.
A hallmark of Weems’ own photography is to insert herself as a viewer into her pictures as she did in “Scenes & Take,” a recent series shot of the sets of hit television shows like “Empire” and “Scandal.” Many of Weems’ videos can be seen on her YouTube channel.
At Grace Farms’ Sanctuary on Saturday, March 23, Weems will appear as the narrator in “Past Tense,” her retelling in music, video and text of “Antigone,” Sophocles’ tragedy about a woman who sacrifices herself for the right to bury her slain brother.
First performed at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York in 2016, it is her response to the police shootings that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. It was a companion of sorts to “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now,” a performance piece inspired by President Obama’s singing of Amazing Grace at the memorial service for victims of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.
Weems’ visit to Grace F
The very landscape and architecture of Grace Farms is designed to encourage collaboration, or “convenings,” that bring together many minds, Ruggio says. She and Kenyon Victor Adams, founding arts initiative director and consulting co-curator, first approached Weems in mid-2017. “She is an artist we had on our minds. She’s asking complex and difficult questions,” Ruggio says.
In a blog post, Adams, who in February was named executive director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, wrote that Weems' methods and concerns align with those of Grace Farms. In fact, her residency is part of new round of initiatives that will address issues of modern slavery, wildlife poaching and trauma recovery.
Ruggio says that whatever work emerges from Weems’ residency will likely flow from her continuing exploration of the history of violence in the U.S. and a mass project that concluded her 2017 residency at the Park Avenue Armory. Titled “The Shape of Things,” the day-long event featured talks and performances by dozens of artists and thinkers.
Weems’ visit will not be accompanied by a traditional exhibit. But Ruggio expects to put a collection of books related to Weems and her collaborators in the Grace Farms’ library. There may also be a link to Weems’ own website, carriemaeweems.net, which has an illustrated timeline of her life and work.
She was born in Portland, Ore., in 1953, had her first and only child at age 16, and got her first camera in 1973. She was living in Northampton, Mass., and teaching at Hampshire College when she made her “Kitchen Table Series,” according to an article about the 2016 publication of the series as a stand alone book.
Considered a major work of American art, it can be read almost like a book even in a museum gallery, where the viewer walks past the mostly wordless chapters. Last year it was on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In the black and white photos, Weems casts herself as the protagonist of the story, acting a woman’s part. It is at once intimate and detached, specific and universal.
Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.