The first time I saw Carrie Weems' “Kitchen Table Series”, what struck me most was the normalcy of the images; the dim lighting and intimacy of a woman with her man, her girlfriends and children as they carried out the actions and emotions of everyday life. We have all come to the kitchen both hungry and vulnerable, and Weems captured this truth perfectly. Her talent with the camera has always been in both showing our humanity as Black women, Black folks and simply, people. The little girl from Portland, Oregon who held a camera one day and never stopped snapping has taken on us journeys through the American South, Europe, and the kitchen, with her body often as the focal point of the photo or video. Weems, as a subject, is deliberate, and so is the theatrical stillness of each shot. She has always wanted the world to know that we are here, and that we deserve to be viewed and celebrated through the lens of humanity like everyone else.
Last month, a retrospective looking back at three decades of her work made it's debut at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, making her the first Black woman to have a solo exhibition there. This year, she won the lauded MacArthur Genius Grant and was honored alongside Berry Gordy and Aretha Franklin at the BET Honors. Of the accolades, Weems laughs heartily, refuting the idea of herself as a genius—but those who have witnessed her body of work, know that indeed, she is.
We caught up with Weems about her diverse body of work, social activism and her next project.
EBONY: What is your first recollection of photography, and when did you realize it was something you'd like to pursue?
Carrie Mae Weems: I had this boyfriend who gave me a Nikon a camera for my 19th or 20th birthday. I took to it like a fish to water. I knew that the moment that this was the thing I would be doing. I wasn't going to be a dancer or a painter; I was going to be a photographer. Photography has this amazing ability to describe things in a way that I might be at a lost of words for; there are some things we cannot point to, but a photo can. There was something about the descriptive power of photography that I fell in love with. It made sense to me.
EBONY: "The Kitchen Table" series pushed back against the boundaries of domestic life, particularly for Black women. Looking back on it years later, has its message changed shape to you?
CMW: I was really involved in an aspect of performance for both myself as the subject maker and as an object. What I managed to do, that I didn't know I was doing at the time, was to speak something universal about the experience of many women and men, across cultures, generations, and ethnic, groups. Many people have responded viscerally and deeply to “Kitchen Table” and I think it has to do with the fact that kitchen is a universal space, the table is, where we gather, we hope, we feel sorrow, we dream, we eat; the struggles of our lives are played out around that one place. So many kind share that experience in this one place.
EBONY: You use many different types of visual stimuli beyond photography, including film and fabrics. How do you approach these methods differently?
CMW: They all require different levels of thinking so if you're going to do a video you really think more cinematically, if you are going to do still photos you think about very specific moments that need to be articulated, but all of them are different, all of them have their own mode of operation. Photography has the ability to distil many things into one moment. It's one reason it is exciting and tricky. You think you have it and don't, but, when you hit it, there's something that really sings, and I think the thing that sings is that I create a space for not only myself but for the viewer to inhabit. It is this shared space of habitation where the magic happens.
EBONY: Why have you included yourself as the subject in so many of your pieces of work?
CMW: In some ways I thought that it was an accident. I was living in an all White town, but I wanted to photograph black woman doing something, and I was the only person around. Maybe because of my experience in theater, I had a great sense of how to use my body, not as Carrie, but to stand in for more than myself, for a black female subjectivity and subject, who was thinking and acting according to her own will. I began to use myself as my own muse. The photographs told me what I was doing was performative work, a performance for the camera.
EBONY: How does portraying the African American experience play a role in your work?
CMW: In part, it’s always there. The complicatedness of a Black artist is that often you can't be anything other than that, and so we bring with us a social and political history that is there and inescapable, and yet, for me, I’ve insisted upon using the Black subject because I wanted to talk more broadly about human issues. One of the greatest gifts that we've given the world is our incredible humanity, even as we struggle with it. I think of it as a gift. It’s often much more about the depth of our humanity and using Black subjects for me. We go see White films, operas or books with White subjects, and we assume it is going to speak to us in universal ways. I am interested in using the Black subject in the same way, in exploring the commonalities of humanity.
EBONY: You received MacArthur Grant this year and your body of work will be shown in the Guggenheim next year. How does it feel to receive these honors?
CMW: I’ve never thought of myself as a genius or being particularly smart. I know that I’m deeply interested in life and certain experiences, and that curiosity has led me to many, many places that I would not have gone had it not been for the arts. I never assumed I’d win the MacArthur or any other award. I never thought anything about them really. I am going to be honored at the BET Awards with Aretha Franklin and Berry Gordy. Did I ever think that was going to happen? No Way! My mother said to me, ‘BET Honors? Now that’s good!’ It wasn’t the MacArthur or the Wall Street Journal write-up for my mom, but now that I have the BET honors award, well, now we’re talking! [laughs] It’s been really fabulous and I am deeply honored to be included in this group of people that will be honored. This year, I am the only visual artist to receive the MacArthur award. I’m just a working woman. I take a lot of stuff with a grain of salt, but this is special and it really means something, not only to me, but to many African-American women and men who have claimed this prize for themselves. My winning this prize vindicated them as well. Many people cherish it, and I think of it as a victory for our people.
EBONY: What will you use the MacArthur grant for and what other projects do you plan to pursue next?
CMW: There's a film project I've been working women like myself, women who are deeply involved and engaged in the world and are aging. It is a piece about women who have turned 60 and came of age in the 60s, so there is a bit of a double entendre going on there. I want to explore what is it like to come of age in that tumultuous time, our place in society then and now, and what it mean to be 60 to see my body and face change. Am I desirable? Am I presentable? Can I be looked at the same way when I was 30 or 40? The MacArthur will allow me to sink my teeth into it. I am also the first traveling African American solo exhibit at the Guggenheim. Within that context, I thought it would be great to have a parade of my all-stars of old and young people who are breaking ground, as an educational aspect of the exhibit. These are amazing artists who are practitioners of culture and American life. They will be a part of the theme, called "Past Tense: Future Perfect."
EBONY: Your artists' collective, Social Studies 101, has gotten young people involved in different art and safety initiatives. Why do you think it is important for people to be socially engaged? How does art help do that?
CMW: Art is the one place we all turn to for solace. We turn to it constantly, whether you are listening to music, or pop in a film- you both want to escape reality, and if you thinking deeply, you want to engage in art in a complex way. Art allows us to navigate the more complicated parts of our lives in a way that is more palpable. We don’t go to the movies just to see a movie; we go for the experience. I’m very interested in the experience. Art has saved my life on a regular basis. I wanted to offer that experience to children, to enlist them, to show them the possibilities that are in the arts, to persuade them to pursue it for both their own personal salvation and for changing the way we are understood.