The Guggenheim is the fifth and final venue for this long overdue retrospective of Carrie Mae Weems, whose work over the past three decades comprises a sustained and multi-facted meditation on race, class, and gender, as well as family and community.
Weems’s Kitchen Table Series from 1990 may be her best-known work, but its roots go back to an early, autobiographical project, Family Pictures and Stories, 1978-84, which documents Weems’s chaotic but close-knit extended family with photographs, texts, and audio recordings. The project was a response to the 1965 Moynihan report, which blamed the absence of nuclear families in the black community for continuing economic inequality, and it exemplified the politically engaged nature of her work.
The Kitchen Table Series is also set at home – or rather, in one small nook in a home, containing a table lit by an overhead lamp. Shot in black and white and featuring Weems herself as a kind of Everywoman, the work combines images with narrative wall texts that affirm her gifts as a storyteller. Weems enacts the roles of mother, lover, and friend, but she also represents the evolution of an individual woman.
The exhibition (which is in two annex galleries) contains images from several bodies of work, including Roaming, which features Weems again, as a questioning witness to cultural power. Dressed in black, facing away from the camera, she is photographed at various monuments throughout Rome. She takes a similar approach in The Museum Series, the subject of a concurrent exhibition on view through June 29 at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
The anchor of the second floor of the show is From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995-96), a simmering, powerful series of 33 toned prints, on view in its entirety here. Weems appropriated 19th-century daguerreotypes of African Americans from Harvard University’s archives. She enlarged the images, and printed them with a deep red tint, then overlaid each print with a phrase, etched into the glass: You Became a Playmate to the Patriarch or A Negroid Type. These are bookended by two blue-tinted prints of the same African tribeswoman who stands in as heartbroken observer of the way African Americans have been mistreated, labeled, and characterized as other, and the way photography has been complicit in this history. In fitting footnote, Harvard threatened to sue Weems for using the images, then wound up buying the series.