I spent this past weekend doing one of my favorite things, immersing myself in a subject within a fitting place. In this case the subject was the art of Carrie Mae Weems and the place was New York City.
There are some artists I cannot recall first learning about or encountering. They are just affixed to my conscious as people to track, support, and draw inspiration from. Carrie is one of these artists. Each time I see her work, it communicates to me in a way that seems unthinkable given the fact that we are strangers. It is as if she has the magical ability to take many of the swirling ideas in my head about gender, race, family, history, and identity and make them well composed expressions that are at once beautiful and gut-wrenching.
When I first heard that the Guggenheim would be presenting the traveling retrospective on her 30 year career, I knew I had to see it. Though I have admired a lot of Carrie's work, I had a sense that I was only familiar with the tip of the iceberg of her artistic corpus. I wanted to surround myself with her work and see how I'd be impacted. What's more, I was really curious how the Guggenheim would curate and present her work. Lastly, I terribly miss New York and this seemed like a brilliant excuse to revisit a city I love.
The weekend I finally chose to visit NY and the Carrie exhibit (April 25-27, 2014) was an especially apropos one. The Guggenheim hosted a weekend long symposium entitled Past Tense/Future Perfect which aimed to bring the discourse on race, class, representations, culture, and beauty alive through the voices of other noted black scholars and artists hand picked by Carrie herself!
I happily traded a weekend I would have spent at the mall and on the couch for some mind expansion.
The exhibit was inspiring, overwhelming, and disappointing at the same damn time. Given that Carrie works primarily in the medium of photography, I figured there would not be much difference between the impact of me seeing the work in person versus in books and online. I was really wrong. The large scale of many of her pieces helped my mind step away from my reality and situate myself in hers. I could feel the emotion emanating from the pieces in a way I did not anticipate. Carrie took me on a journey of her intimate feelings on relationships, color consciousness, and black history. She also helped me to see a new vision of self-determination as a black woman and image lover.
It was painful too though. You cannot present an honest story about the black experience without addressing the horrors and trying experiences and perceptions we have faced. Whether it was just a well-composed portrait of the "Door of No Return," or a crimson-hued capture of an enslaved woman asking a poignant question about her status, I honestly felt like I was reconnecting a lot of pain that I must had compartmentalized in my brain. The raw emotions came rushing back all at once. I sat on a bench and cried. More than just sorrow, I felt like I was more aware of myself than I had been before I entered the exhibit.
The symposium only enhanced the sensations stirred up my the exhibit. Speakers like Nelson George, Thelma Golden, and Micheala Angela Davis who I was familiar with and new-to-me artists helped me explore concepts like the complex meaning of black beauty, the importance of humor in the black experience, and the complicated relationship of black art to mainstream institutions such as the Guggenheim. I took lots of notes, but also enjoyed being a passive listener for once.
With all of this goodness, I hate to discuss what I wasn't really feeling. These things are not so much critiques, but just my musings on how an already awesome fan could have been even better. First, I think the Guggenheim really edited the collection. Though they had a lot of Carrie's work, some of the sub-collections seemed awkwardly cut off. Along the same lines, the exhibit was curiously cut in half. You walked in one gallery and then left Carrie's compelling work for the much less engaging Italian Futurism exhibit. Then you happened upon the bisected portion of the exhibit some flights later. It was not an optimal experience from my point of view.
Still, those little imperfections could not dull the awesome light sparked in my by Carrie's daring work. I loved my visit to the Guggenheim, and hope I can share more of the highlights of my NY trip with you via this blog.