Housed in the Park Avenue Armory, with “The Shape of Things,” Weems confronts the twin realities of injustice and identity—themes she’s been examining for the last 40 years of her remarkable career.
A MacArthur award-winning photographer, performance artist, videographer, and activist, Weems is one of the most prominent visual artists on the scene. In her latest offering, she traces our current state as a society, with ever-present anti-Blackness sentiment and fractured democracy serving as a reminder to Black people that what we are experiencing in our political realm is not a new phenomenon.With this exhibit, Weems hopes to imagine a new future.
The show emerged out of a daylong session that she curated during her residency at the Armory in 2017, shortly after Donald Trump was elected president. She asked the participants probing questions such as: “How do you characterize violence?”; “How can artists continue to work in the current climate?”; and “With terror pressing on us from so many angles, how do you maintain hope?”
“I’m interested in how you unite people across certain ideas and platforms,” Weems said. “One of the things that a lot of institutions say is, ‘We don’t know the African American artists; we don’t know the brown curators; we don’t know who they are.’ Well, here are 150 of them for you to choose from.”
Constructed like a circus in the 55,000-square-foot-space, Weems plays the ringmaster in the exhibit which has, “sideshows, 19th-century optical devices, and illusions that reveal the tragi-comic spectacle of our recent and not so recent past.”
Upon entering the space, you’ll confront “Seat or Stand and Speak” (2020), an installation featuring wooden chairs and a giant megaphone without a device to amplify voices.
Next, you’ll happen upon “Cyclorama—Conditions, a Video in 7 Parts”(2021), which has mural paintings displayed on the walls of a circular building, giving viewers a 360-degree perspective, accompanied by a 40-minute video. Then, there’s the “Louisiana Project” (2003), with shadow puppets enacting a scene of slave-owning women having tea on the porch of a plantation house and audio of Amy Cooper playing throughout the exhibit.
The second ring in the circus is “Lincoln, Lonnie and Me—A Story in 5 Parts,” a 2012 presentation taking the form of a 19th-century optical illusion called “Pepper’s Ghost.”
The last installation, “All Blue—A Contemplative Site” (2021), features a door placed in front of a huge circular screen, with the surface of the moon projected on the surface.
As always, Weems offers an insightful and provocative presentation about the existential reality of Black people in America.
In addition to the installation, the Park Avenue Armory exhibition also features a performance series, “Land of Broken Dreams,” that starts Dec. 9-Dec.11 and includes “artist talks, poetry readings, concerts, and scholarly discussions.”