How did Carrie Mae Weems become an artist?
Carrie Mae Weems was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1953. At just 16 years old, she asked her Dad if she could leave home.
"I went to my father and said, 'Dad, I think I'm ready to move out on my own.' He said, 'You think you could move out and pay your rent and buy food and all that by yourself? And not come back home like every other day for food or rent or a safe haven?' And I said, 'Yeh, I think I can do that.'"
So, with her family's blessing, Carrie moved to San Francisco. She met a community of creatives and became a dancer with the renowned choreographer Anna Halprin. Even though she loved to dance, it didn't quite satisfy her own creative urges.
"I knew that I was going to be an artist. What kind of artist, I didn't know. But I knew that my comfort would be found in the world of art," she later reflected in an interview in BOMB magazine.
Then, on her 21st birthday, Carrie received a life-changing gift: her first camera. She fell in love with the lens and felt she could capture the intimacy of power, womanhood and Black experience in ways she'd never seen before.
In 1976, Carrie moved to New York City and started taking classes in photography at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She created several bodies of work, perhaps most notably Family Pictures and Stories (1981-1982) and Colored People (1989-1990).
Carrie Mae Weems Kitchen Table Series
In 1990, Carrie created her seminal series, The Kitchen Table, which propelled her into prominence in the art world. The 20 photographs feature the artist herself and were taken at her actual kitchen table at the time. The exquisite simplicity of the pictures tells an intimate story of love, domesticity and, as always, power.
African-American history plays a huge role in Carrie's artwork. However, dealing with racial and structural violence is not a preference choice. In a 2018 talk at The Aspen Institute, she explains:
"I don't really do this kind of work because I want to. I don't really sort of deal with the history of violence constantly because I want to. But really, because I am compelled to."
Ultimately, Carrie is an artist fascinated by the world. She looks deeply at everything, teasing apart how power exists within every aspect of our lives.
In the Bomb magazine interview mentioned above, Carrie's long-term friend and fellow artist Dawoud Bey sums it up perfectly: "From the very beginning, Carrie Mae Weems has had a sharp intelligence that was looking for a way into the world."
Her art practice is this "way in." Through photography, text, performance and film, Carrie expresses her thoughts and discoveries about the way things work. Each artwork offers a moment of clarity. They offer insight and inspiration that cut through the complexity, catastrophe and wonder of our world.
Which contemporary artists are inspired by Carrie Mae Weems?
Carrie's artwork has influenced a generation of contemporary artists. The list of people inspired by her work is endless. Mickalene Thomas, Grace Lynn Haynes, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Laurie Simmons, Lyle Ashton Harris, Kalup Linzy, Shirin Neshat, Catherine Opie, Xaviera Simmons and Hank Willis Thomas have all cited Carrie's photography as an influence on their creative practices.
"I think through seeing Kitchen Table Series and then other works, was the permission to act in a certain way, to present in a certain way. It was the permission through example, I think. And that's what's been most influential to me. ... I think there's also a translation of information through you that I can understand things that I haven't read or seen or experienced."
Carrie brought new levels of intimacy to the medium of photography and effortlessly weaves together the personal and political in a way that is now (to some extent) a norm in contemporary art. Carrie's work changed the baseline. She changed the status quo.