Willing to take the chance

Carrie Mae Weems (from MacArthur Foundation website)Carrie Mae Weems talks about the connectedness, politics and imperatives of making art. Her work is on display at Harvard through January 2017.

By Cherie Hu ‘17

No art is truly original. That was a central idea of a talk by award-winning photography and video installation artist Carrie Mae Weems on Dec. 5 at the Brattle Theatre.

“Artists are always influencing one another,” she told a packed audience. “We rob, borrow, steal, lift, fake and forge off of one another. We’re constantly engaged in a deep level not just of appropriation, but also of serious invention.”

Engaging in artistic exchange with others, never creating in a vacuum, was one of many themes Weems explored during her sold-out talk Past Tense / Future Perfect at the Brattle. Providing insights into her creative process, the MacArthur Fellow and W. E. B. Du Bois Medal recipient walked the audience through her life’s work, much of which is currently on exhibition at Harvard University’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art through January 7, 2017.

Carrie Mae Weems at the Brattle Theatre Photo: Cherie Hu '17
Staying true to her word, Weems began by discussing other artists’ portfolios, rather than her own. “I start with the work of other artists, because the work of other artists has saved me,” she said. “Seeing how they paved their own way in the art world has helped me negotiate my own life.” In her youth, Weems had a particular interest in studying other black female photographers, as well as pioneers in adjacent art forms such as author Toni Morrison and musician Nina Simone.

One of her earliest masterpieces involved Harvard’s very own archives. From 1995 to 1996, Weems re-photographed daguerreotypes of African-American slaves on display at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, tinted them red, and sandblasted the final versions with self-reflective text: “You Became A Scientific Profile / A Negroid Type / An Anthropological Debate / & A Photographic Subject.” The final product, a series of photographs titled From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, challenged conventional notions of cultural ownership, attracting the attention of lawyers and copyright experts. “I had one of the biggest fights of my life with Harvard University over this work,” she said.

In building upon inherently racialized photographs, Weems was interested not just in theoretical implications of copyright, but also in the physical manifestation of politics, in what the way we frame our own human bodies reveals about our cultural climate. “What’s endlessly fascinating to me about artists is their willingness to put their bodies, and other bodies, through the most relentless pace,” she said. “They’re constantly thinking about the body, and its collapse.”

Throughout her discussion, she emphasized that artists cannot create in a vacuum and that an artist’s individual works over time are never completely disjointed. “We think we are developing each of our projects singularly, but contained in every body of work is an antecedent, a clear sign of what we are going to do next,” she said. “If you look back at your work, you’ll realize that it reveals something about yourself that you never knew before.”

In Weems’ case, her own artistic history revealed a subconscious interest in architecture, which fully blossomed during a trip to Europe in 2006. That year, she worked nearly every single day, waking up early in the morning to photograph herself standing solitarily in front of ancient monuments, museums and other architectural touchstones. The resulting photo collections, Roaming and Museums, aim to position buildings themselves as political agents and symbols of power.

“There’s something profound about the sexuality of space, the way buildings are arranged so that we know who belongs in them and who doesn’t,” she said. “Architecture speaks to us about the materiality and humanity of the culture it engages. Harvard is structured in this way; our local and national government buildings are also structured in this way. ”

This year, Weems has been focusing on larger multimedia projects, connected to current events and modern culture. Her theatrical production Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, which had its world premiere at the Spoleto Festival USA in June 2016, honors the nine churchgoers who were killed one year prior at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. For the ongoing project Scenes & Take, Weems is visiting and photographing the sets of famous TV shows and productions, such as Hamilton, Scandal and Orange Is the New Black, to explore the politics of storytelling and the evolution of media representation over time.

Weems emphasized, political art should not be antagonistic and repellent, but rather should “allow the public to speak back to you with their concerns. It’s important to think about how you bring people into art, how you ask them to negotiate and consider your voice, as opposed to turning away from it.”

Part of this creative negotiation is striking a balance between strength and conciseness. “It’s not necessarily about what to put in, but rather about what to leave out,” she said. “Making great art requires making hard, demanding editing choices, with extraordinary discipline.”

Discipline became one of Weems’ most important takeaways for the audience. In her eyes, the secret to being a successful artist lies not in the “what” but rather in the “how.”

During the audience Q&A, a local art student asked Weems what motivates her to get up every morning and continue to engage with her difficult, politically-charged art.

“Art requires taking risks, and the only way you can take the risk is to work,” she answered. “It’s not just about the finished work, but also about the strategy and approach to making work that’s really consistent. It’s like being on your knees in prayer. The most important thing is that you’re there, you’re present and you’re willing to take the chance.”