NewsOct 2, 2015

Carrie Mae Weems Melds Art and Justice

Her audience gazed in rapt attention as artist Carrie Mae Weems showed slides from her exhibition, “From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried,” a series of 19th-century photographs of slaves that she superimposed with text, a project commissioned by the Getty Museum.

Carrie Mae Weems speaking

“Making that work was very interesting,” she noted emphatically. (View the project here.)

Art doesn’t necessarily provide answers, but it allows the artist and viewer to ask certain kinds of questions and resolve “aspects and notions of the truth,” she said. The pursuit of the truth and exploration of power, racism, sexism and class are all part of the common thread that runs through Weems’s vast, acclaimed oeuvre.

“It’s all the same project really: The exploration of social justice,” she said.

The influential American artist drew a packed audience to Lesley’s Washburn Auditorium on Thursday evening, where she reflected on her 30-year career and her process of making art. She has exhibited in major museums around the world, and won a 2013 MacArthur “Genius” grant and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, among many other recognitions.

“I wake up very early in the morning, and I try to battle through a set of ideas that I think are all very much relational,” said Weems.

She spoke directly to students in the audience, including those studying at the Lesley University College of Art and Design, and called on young artists to push through the pain of the human experience and make work that is important and true to them.

“You are the ones who are coming behind me,” said Weems, “and you are the ones who will make the world a different place through the ways you express yourself.”

Weems said she is always reading, watching and observing the work of other artists, writers, musicians and performers, from Toni Morrison to Leo Tolstoy. She is influenced by her fellow artists who are also grappling with the “truth and messiness of our lives” and trying to clarify it.

“Keep reading,” she urged. “Spend time with the arts that matter to you.

“Nothing springs just solely from you,” she continued. “We are all informed, all responding to deep structures in the world around us and to other artists.”

Weems creates artwork that is textured and has “odor,” not pristine and sterile.

“Texture allows you to get close to meaning,” she explained. “Think of your work as archiving your ideas,” said Weems.

During her presentation, she highlighted photographs and images from many of her projects, including works that explore themes of history and racism. She explores an American society which is “in the midst of this profound change that I think in some instances is very scary,” asserting that we are dealing now with consequences of colonization, victimization, and the assassinations of the 1960s, including Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John and Robert Kennedy.

“And when I’m not so completely overwhelmed by it, I think about gardens,” she said with a laugh, shifting gears to some of her more lighthearted and fun projects, such as photographs for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for a book to celebrate its sculpture garden.

“I went to (MoMA’s) archive, dug around, and found photos taken in the garden much earlier, in the 60s and 70s. Then I invited a whole bunch of people to the gardens to restage things. It was hilarious,” she recalled with a laugh.

Lesley College of Art and Design Dean Richard Zauft praised Weems’s courage as an artist during his welcome address to the audience, and student Isabella Herrera, a senior photography major, hailed Weems as an inspiration to young artists during her introduction.

“She shows us as young artists that our work is yet capable of affecting social change, even in a seemingly stagnant and indifferent climate,” Herrera said.

“We are now living for the most part in a majority-minority state and certainly will be in next 15 years,” said Weems. “This is huge, really important. It’s going to change the face of the nation, and how we respond to is as sophisticated, intelligent people is going to matter a great deal.”

Weems's visit as part of the Strauch-Mosse Visiting Artist Lecture Series is supported by the Strauch-Mosse Endowed Fund for Visiting Artists, established in 2009 by Lesley University trustee Hans D. Strauch through a $1 million gift. The foundation and its associated lecture series reflect the university’s commitment to cultural and artistic literacy, a bedrock of a democratic society.