ARTS 1A: Document Analysis 4
Carrie Mae Weems
An excerpt from an interview with Carrie Mae Weems by Dawoud Bey, published in Bomb 108 (Summer 2009), 60-67.
Dawoud Bey: There are some things that I want to ask you that are more specific to your work. Things I haven’t actually asked you but have thought about for some time. One has to do with an aspect of your work in which you are, conceptually, both in front of and behind the camera. You’re the subject and you’re the photographer. Certainly the earlier Kitchen Table series introduced that idea quite forcefully. More recently there’s a recurring figure that has been appearing in your work; what I would call a silent witness to history. This woman, although we can’t always see her face, seems to be a kind of omnipotent presence, signaling perhaps that what she bears witness to is more highly charged than what we might think. She seems like a witness who, through witnessing, almost carries the weight of each place. This woman—this avatar—who is she? What’s her function in relation to places and the narratives you’re constructing?
Carrie Mae Weems: I call her my muse—but it’s safe to say that she’s more than one thing. She’s an alter-ego. My alter-ego, yes. But she has a very real function in my work life. I was in the Folklore program at UC Berkeley for three years, working with Alan Dundes on the strategy of participant/observer. I attempt to create in the work the simultaneous feeling of being in it and of it. I try to use the tension created between these different positions—I am both subject and object; performer and director. I only recently realized that I’ve been acting/performing/observing in this way for years—the work told me.
The muse made her first appearance in Kitchen Table; this woman can stand in for me and for you; she can stand in for the audience, she leads you into history. She’s a witness and a guide. She changes slightly, depending on location. For instance, she operates differently in Cuba and Louisiana than in Rome. She’s shown me a great deal about the world and about myself, and I’m grateful to her. Carrying a tremendous burden, she is a black woman leading me through the trauma of history. I think it’s very important that as a black woman she’s engaged with the world around her; she’s engaged with history, she’s engaged with looking, with being. She’s a guide into circumstances seldom seen.
Much of my current work centers on power and architecture. For instance, I find myself traveling in Seville, Rome, and Berlin. It’s been implied that I have no place in Europe. I find the idea that I’m “out of place” shocking. There’s a dynamic relationship between these places: the power of the state, the emotional manipulation of citizens through architectural means, the trauma of the war, genocide, the erasure of Jews, the slave coast, and the slave cabins. Here [in Rome] I can see an Egyptian obelisk in every major square, one riding on the back of Bernini’s sculpture. The world met on the Mediterranean, not on the Mississippi—these things are linked in my mind. From here, Africa is just one giant step away. Spain is closer than Savannah, Rome closer than Rhode Island. Mark Antony lost his power languishing in the arms of Cleopatra; Mussolini established Italian colonies in Egypt; the Moors and Africans controlled the waters of Spain, leaving their mark in the Alhambra. Money was minted here, not in Maine. See what I mean? I’m not here to eat the pasta. I’m trying in my humble way connect the dots, to confront history. Democracy and colonial expansion are rooted here. So I refuse the imposed limits. My girl, my muse, dares to show up as a guide, an engaged persona pointing toward the history of power. She’s the unintended consequence of the Western imagination.
It’s essential that I do this work and it’s essential that I do it with my body.
Address the following questions in your notebook:
1. In the first paragraph, Dawoud Bey acknowledged the dual roles of Carrie Mae Weems in her “Kitchen Table” series. Weems was not only the photographer but also what else ?
2. What did Carrie Mae Weems study for three years at UC Berkeley?
3. Carrie Mae Weems was living in Rome when she participated in this interview. In the last paragraph, she said, “I’m not here to eat the pasta. I’m trying in my humble way connect the dots, to . . .” do what?
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