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Carrie Mae Weems’ multi-media, mind-expanding talk highlighted the 2014 Chicago Filter Photo Festival last week. Commanding without being commandeering, Weems has used her enormous presence to shine a very intense light on the idea of absence. As ingenious as she is rare, this Black female artist began her four-decade career as a photographer and eventually branched out into every other art form imaginable. With earned street cred and art cred, Weems creatively and poetically confronts the struggles that attend the absence of voice and power.
That Weems has succeeded in provoking controversy while remaining overwhelmingly hopeful and positive is just the tip of her legacy. Her quietly disturbing forays into America’s shameful history of racial and political conflict always seem to suggest a pathway to something better. Weems advocates communication, relationship forging and an olive leaf with every project, whether the protest-inducing “From Here I Saw…” series of appropriated archival slavery prints with her pointed, overlaid text or her playful “Colored People” series, suggesting a candy-like appeal to being Black.
With lyrical cadence, Weems offered a waterfall of anecdotes, but one stood out to me as emblematic of both her acute sensitivity to struggle and her strong, openhearted approach to such culturally ingrained problems. A winner of the Rome Prize, Weems travelled there to study the “architecture of cinema, especially Fellini” while creating her own film project utilizing “constructed history and artifice” to explore the “US history of profound struggle and murder” through the re-enactment of some famous assassinations, from Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Kennedys. Weems recounted, “When I arrived in Rome, I discovered something I never knew before. I actually knew a lot of people there. I never realized that so many, say, went there every August. They never mentioned it to me, some of them good friends. And everyone said to me some version of ‘what are you doing here?’ (long pause).”
Weems went on to make her cinematic project of assassinations, but started another as well, posing before each of the 13 gates of Rome, then buildings of State, to explore the “architecture of fear”. Appearing as muse in each picture or film, Weems went on to appear in the open spaces in front of the great museums of Europe, silently and unequivocally asking, “who is represented here and who is not?” Ever concerned with who speaks, who doesn’t and who is given the chance, Weems’ presence gives eloquent voice to those still absent from our cultural dialogs.
Carrie Mae Weems appeared as a featured guest speaker at the 2014 Chicago Filter Photo Festival, a five-day educational photographic event. For more information, go to: http://www.filterfestival.com/
Feature image: From the series “Kitchen Table, 1990” gelatin silver print by Carrie Mae Weems (courtesy of the artist)