Installation view, “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video,” Guggenheim Museum, New York, January 24–May 14, 2014 (photo by David Heald) (© Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation)
In her 30-year career, Portland-born photographer Carrie Mae Weems has collected a long succession of accolades and honors, with approximately 50 solo exhibitions around the world, honorary degrees from numerous institutions, and, most recently, a MacArthur Genius Grant. This year, Weems gets the distinctive honor of becoming the first African-American woman to have a retrospective at the Guggenheim — her first major exhibition at any New York museum, ever. It’s one of those honors that sits at an awkward intersection, both disappointing and profound. Disappointing because it has taken this long for the Guggenheim to recognize an African American’s work is such a capacity, and profound because Weems’s work in particular feels strangely appropriate in this space, at this time.
Carrie Mae Weems, “Untitled (Man and mirror),” from “Kitchen Table Series” (1990), gelatin silver print, 27 1/4 x 27 1/4 in (69.2 x 69.2 cm) (Collection of Eric and Liz Lefkofsky, promised gift to The Art Institute of Chicago) (© Carrie Mae Weems) (photo © The Art Institute of Chicago) (click to enlarge)
In the days since the debut of Weems’s exhibition (coupled with a beautifully edited catalogue from Yale University Press), there has been discussion not only about itshistoric significance, but also about the significance of how it’s situated within the Guggenheim itself. Curated by Kathryn E. Delmez and initially presented at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville (the Guggenheim is the final stop on a national tour), the original retrospective has been cut down extensively, with Weems’s moving exploration of Gullah culture, theSea Island Series, only excerpted, and other important works such asThe Hampton Project, which explores ties between African and Native Americans, cut out all together. And it’s true: the exhibit, split in loose chronological order between two of the museum’s Annex Level galleries, does somehow feel incomplete.
This isn’t to say that what is on display is in any way diminished. The photographs and videos that populate the exhibit still tell an important story, interrogating black identity, gender roles, family, domestic spaces, and human relationships. The story plays out powerfully in Weems’s seminal Kitchen Table Series (1990), in which she’s featured as a sort of everywoman in various domestic scenes. In Colored People (1989–90), she explores color as metaphor through pigmented portraits of young black children that challenge colorism (the disturbing culture of favoring lighter skin within the black community), with loaded labels like “Magenta Colored Girl” and “Blue Black Boy.”