Why Carrie Mae Weems Doesn’t Want Your “Black” Art Exhibitions (or Your Women’s Shows Either)

The annual rite of February’s African-American History Month in America feels more and more like a mixed blessing with each passing year. On one hand, setting aside time to learn the story of Jackie Robinson, for example, ensures that the story of the struggle won’t be forgotten. On the other hand, what does designating a specific month for African-American history say about the other months? Can we and should we really compartmentalize history in this way? Similarly, when well-intentioned museums stage group exhibitions for African-American and/or women artists, does the value of making up for past wrongs outweigh the continuation of using such categories? Artist Carrie Mae Weems, subject of the exhibition Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, the first solo retrospective ever of an African-American woman artist at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, believes that the time for racial- and/or gender-based shows is over. Why Carrie Mae Weems doesn’t want your “black” art exhibitions (or your women’s shows either) may help end the days of such curatorial practices and open up a new way of seeing not just these artists, but difference itself.


The Weems show at the Guggenheim covers a wide range of her work from the past three decades. The majority of the works involve her photography (especially her photographic series), but Weems multimedia works—texts, videos, and audio recordings—supplement and help underline the themes of the photographs, which the show organizes chronologically to better display Weems’ development as much as her consistency. The common thread running through series such as Family Pictures and Stories (1978-1984), Kitchen Table Series (1990), Sea Islands Series (1991-1992), Africa (1993), and Slave Coast (1993) is how community is shaped in the midst of difference. Obviously, Weems as an African-American woman taking photographs of herself and her family or their heritage will depict African-Americans and women and their heritage, but Weems wants “people of color to stand for the human multitudes” rather than purely for a single group. It’s easy to assume that that Weems wants to make a statement about her personal condition, but it can be sometimes hard to take the next step with her to see how her statement is the statement of all outsiders. The next logical (or illogical) step is to see how we’re all “outsiders” in some sense until we stop putting others (and ourselves) into groups.

For example, in Untitled (Woman and daughter with makeup) from the Kitchen Table Series (detail shown above), you see a black woman and her daughter at an everyday table engaging in the everyday act of applying makeup. The image appears within a series that shows the same woman not just interacting with her husband and other daughters, but also appearing alone, playing solitaire in her solitude. The only constant is the kitchen table itself, the place of gathering to eat, to laugh, to love, to argue, and to simply be, whether together or alone. To read Weems work as purely autobiographical is to limit both her and ourselves. To see how she puts the constants of life—the common denominators—front and center is to recognize how divisive identity politics, however well intentioned, can be.

That’s not to say that Weems casts aside a critique of contemporary racism. In From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995-1996), Weems combines historical photographs of slavery and its 20th century aftereffects with her own text, which points fingers not just as racists, but also at the complicity of the discriminated against with racism. “You became an accomplice,” Weems writes. “You became the joker's joke & anything but what you were. Ha.” In the video series Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment (2008), which includes a section titled The Fall: The Assassinations, recognizes how history’s written by the winners, but rewritten by those who resist the inertia of allowing the status quo to continue. One of Weems’ most recent works, the 2012 video titled The Obama Project strikes at the heart of the paradox of Barack Obama election and reelection as President of the United States. As Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings plaintively plays in the background, Weems lists all the roles Obama’s played for his friends and foes as Obama’s image morphs into Jesus Christ, Adolf Hitler, and almost everyone in-between. For Weems, Obama’s become an Everyman, but in the most hyperbolic, toxic sense, yet she ultimately chooses the inclusive side, without turning a blind eye to the divisive side, of the debate over who and what our first African-American President is.

“Of course, I’m thrilled,” Weems told The New Yorker’s Andrea K. Scott when asked about the retrospective. “I’m the first African-American woman to have a retrospective at the Guggenheim. Not to sound pretentious, but I should be having a show there. By now, it should be a moot point for a black artist—but it’s not.” After calling for similar large-scale exhibitions of artists such as Lorna Simpson, Mickalene Thomas, and Lyle Ashton Harris, Weems explained that she’s “not as interested in [her] own career as [she is] in moving a kind of cultural diplomacy forward.” When asked in a separate interview with Charmaine Picard essentially what that moving “cultural diplomacy forward” might look like, Weems hoped for “a well-curated show that has the power to break through narrow confines of race in order to bring together really smart artists,” such as “a show with Lorna Simpson and Cindy Sherman, or Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Frank, and Gary Winogrand.” The problem, Weems concludes, is that “African-American artists are still considered outliers, and people don’t really know how to integrate them into broader themes.”

Can we envision a day when stories about a major retrospective of an African-American or women artist lead with the artist’s name and not their race or gender? Will societal norms ever render those accidents of birth “moot,” as Weems hopes, and make such artists seem less like “outliers” on the bell curve of creativity and more like part of the massed-up mean? The Guggenheim’s online description of Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video almost purposively resists labels until the very end and does so only then to champion Weems’ “desire for universality.”  For those who wish for apost-racial Americaand wonder what it would look like, Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video might be the answer.

[Image: Carrie Mae Weems. Untitled (Woman and daughter with makeup) (from Kitchen Table Series) (detail), 1990. Gelatin silver print, 27 1/4 x 27 1/4 inches (69.2 x 69.2 cm). Collection of Eric and Liz Lefkofsky, Promised gift to The Art Institute of Chicago. © Carrie Mae Weems. Photo: © The Art Institute of Chicago.]

[Many thanks to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, for providing me with the image above and other press materials related to the exhibition Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, which runs through May 14, 2014.]

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Sponsored by Northwell Health
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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