Her back to the camera, the woman wears a regal black dress as she stares at a landscape of old, whitewashed homes. The photograph's painterly quality and its stark contrasts — black and white, new and aged, isolation and crowdedness — produce a panorama that's hypnotic and utterly suggestive of mythology. Carrie Mae Weems is the woman in the photo. She's also the woman behind the camera. And her image, The Edge of Time — Ancient Rome, is Weems at her best: directing herself at an Italian vista that has deep personal meaning for her and universal appeal for viewers from any culture. “Humanist” is a term that applies to many visual artists, but it's especially applicable to Weems, who just won a MacArthur “genius” grant for a body of work that ranges from Weems' kitchen table in America to remote corners of the globe.
The Edge of Time — Ancient Rome, featured in the exhibit “Seven Sisters” at Jenkins Johnson Gallery, asks viewers to question the way Rome's rulers built their city to contain its citizens. To question popular assumptions. “That photo relates to the work I've been doing for the last 10 years,” Weems says by phone from New York, where she's based. “I've walked into a number of different locations and sites, whether it's in Cuba or Louisiana, and pointed a viewer toward the same theme.”
Weems is grouped with seven other prominent women artists in “Seven Sisters,” where The Edge of Time — Ancient Rome is one of almost 30 works by her. The downtown San Francisco exhibit coincides with “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video,” which opens Oct. 16 at Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center. The first museum retrospective devoted to Weems, “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video” has toured the United States for a year, and next goes to New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. All this attention has helped elevate Weems into a rarefied echelon of visual artists. Weems is one of those whose reputation extends beyond the art world — who get invited to the White House, who appear on Charlie Rose's TV show, who have a voice in national debates about subjects they're consumed about. For Weems, those subjects are race, gender, history, and the American dream. Weems is both the personification of that dream and a deconstructor of it. With her 2010 photographic series “Slow Fade to Black,” for example, Weems blurs photos of African-American women singers from previous generations. In their heyday, these singers — among them Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, and Lena Horne — were household names. Today? Weems' images are commentaries on the ephemeral nature of popular culture, which has marginalized these black female singers while simultaneously embracing a new generation of black singers like Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson.
Besides “Slow Fade to Black” and The Edge of Time — Ancient Rome, which is from Weems' 2006 “Roaming” series, the Jenkins Johnson exhibit includes “Afro-Chic,” a 2009 video of Afro'd fashion models who parade on a runway festooned with old photos of the Black Panthers' Huey Newton and Angela Davis. As directed by Weems, the Afro is celebrated as a matter-of-fact hairstyle, with straight hair in the minority. The models Weems employs have fun with the subject, winking and shaking their figures at the camera. In naming Weems a MacArthur Fellow and pledging $625,000 in grant money, the MacArthur Foundation cited her versatility with video and photography, saying she made “lyrical and evocative” images that have led to a “poignant and revealing visual archive of the human condition.” Weems, who's 60, has influenced a generation of younger artists like Mickalene Thomas, a New York painter and photographer whose works in “Seven Sisters” include one of her trademark rhinestone pieces, Ain't I A woman (Fran). The gems that Thomas affixes to the scalps, lips, and other parts of her painted figures glamorize the black female form the same way that Gustav Klimt used gold leaf to glamorize cloaks encircling the white female form. Also standing out at “Seven Sisters”: Patricia Piccinini, an Australian mixed-media artist whose small silicone figures are cute and disturbing hybrids of human and animal; painter Camille Rose Garcia, whose style fuses influences from Disney to street art; and Toyin Odutola, a Nigerian-born artist whose black faces — drawn with pens and markers — are peppered with marks resembling tattoo strips, which turn Odutola's profiles into thriving mosaics. Odutola, who earned an MFA last year from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, has said that Weems is one of her cherished role models.
Weems says her photos are ultimately about establishing relationships with the people whose lives she dramatizes, with Weems often acting as a stand-in for others. “For me, when you strip everything away from my work, when you strip race out of the picture, or gender, or any of those other 'isms,' what are you really talking about? What's really at the root of all this?” she says. “I think the root of all my work is this idea of embracing. I'm hoping that women, in the fullness of their humanity, will be embraced. I'm hoping that people of color, in the depths of their humanity, will be embraced for who they are. And ultimately, if you're talking about embrace, you're talking about questions of love. And love is a thing that makes us see ourselves more clearly. When we say we're in love with someone, what we're really doing is showing our appreciation for someone shining a light on the essence of ourselves. We're really looking at the question of love or unrequited love, and how we might get to something more profound about who we are.”
Weems lived in San Francisco in the early 1970s, when she took photography classes at City College and first began embarking on her visual arts career. Both Bay Area exhibits represent a homecoming for her, and she's traveling here to deliver a keynote talk on Oct. 16 for her retrospective. “It's my most favorite place in all the world,” Weems says of San Francisco. “My understanding of the political, and being involved in the political and the arts, came out of my deep and abiding relationship to San Francisco. It still drives me in very profound ways.”