The American artist Carrie Mae Weems for more than 30 years has been creating works largely centered on the lives of women, working-class people, and Black people. She is perhaps best known for her photographic projects, including “The Kitchen Table Series” featuring intimate moments around a kitchen table, and “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” based on daguerreotypes depicting enslaved people.
But when Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, an associate professor of History of Art and Architecture and African and African American Studies, and Christine Garnier, a doctoral candidate, started compiling material for a new edited volume on Weems’ work, they realized there was a lack of existing scholarship, which “typifies a pattern, when it comes to many artists of color, but specifically Black artists,” said Lewis.
“Work is often over-exhibited (or instrumentally displayed) and undertheorized,” she said.
The Gazette spoke to Lewis about mending this gap in scholarship by bringing together interviews, criticism, and theoretical analysis of Weems’ work from scholars and artists, including Weems herself.
Sarah Elizabeth Lewis
Gazette: How did you want to shape the book “October Files: Carrie Mae Weems,” given the gap in scholarship on Weems?
Lewis: It is no exaggeration to say that Carrie Mae Weems, an extraordinary artist and thinker, is one of the most prodigious artists of our time. I am so grateful that my colleagues Benjamin Buchloh [Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Modern Art] and Carrie Lambert-Beatty [Professor of HAA and Art, Film, and Visual Studies] kindly invited me to edit this volume of scholarship on the work of Weems, and because of who Carrie is we all thought it would be a straightforward process. Yet when I examined the history of criticism and scholarship on her practice, I was stunned. The research showed that the scholarship on Carrie Mae Weems early on is represented by the work of two individuals mainly — bell hooks and artist Coco Fusco — followed by a break in substantive scholarship on her, specifically, for nearly 15 years, capped by a flurry of wonderful essays by scholars. Within the gap, the most thorough works are interviews with Carrie herself. Knowing how widely celebrated she is and has been, the pattern was hard to accept. The discovery of this improbable desert of scholarship—and what it says about the changes in the discipline of art history — is my most vivid memory about putting this book together.
The problem here is not just having Black art become celebrated, yet not fully documented or theorized — creating these glaring asymmetries between level acclaim and substantive discourse surrounding the artist’s work — but this lack of scholarship also exacerbates the structural inequities faced by artists of color, and by Black artists in particular. Carrie Mae Weems reflected on these gaps in her conversation with Thelma Golden and I for this volume. As she put it: “This is not something that just happens with me as a woman. It has happened consistently with African American artistic practice and I think it’s one of the downfalls of the field to not really take it on.” So, this volume takes it on and shaped the themes of the book. It became a collective pean to this irreplaceable figure, and covers her projects, but is also an analysis of the changes in the discipline of art history itself.