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Carrie Mae Weems got me thinking about family life in my twenties

Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems at the Guggenheim


Well, first off...Black people don’t have birds as pets. That was my first observation of one specific photo from the Kitchen Table Series, as I circumvented the room with some old white lady who has been critiquing art for more than 40 years. We were previewing Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video exhibit that is on view now at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. As we examined the photos arranged in order of chronological emotion (from happiness to breakdown), I couldn't help but feel empathetic to the woman who was in every single photo acted out by Weems herself! The struggle, the poetry, the black love from a twisted marriage with a jobless black man, the kid and the girlfriends, all coming in contact with the table as the main object. Disregarding whoever else gravitated towards my thoughts as if I was the curator, the Weems exhibit brought out nostalgic memories of what it’s like growing up in a black household. The vivid highlights I experienced with my own family have surprisingly found their way into adulthood in my twenties.

For those of you who aren’t into photography, Weems’ is a 59-year old black woman from Portland, Oregon. She’s a feminist or "womanish," circa Alice Walker. Weems’ work usually focuses on issues surrounding race, gender, and class inequality, with African Americans (more so women) as the subject. From the civil rights movement and West African culture to the influence of Lena Horne and Kathryn Dunham, Weems’ work is surreal, vivid and filled with nostalgia. She’s captured, appropriated and managed to depict the many dimensions of Blacks in her own form of photographer that has gained her high honors, like the 2013 MacArthur Recipient. Although, many aren't as familiar with Weems (and I wasn’t until I read about her in a fashion magazine), some of her interests include debunking and calling truth to the black stereotypes that have been plaguing our society for decades. In one series called “An Anthropological Debate,” Weems dissects images taken by a white photographer, blows them up, turns them red and plasters white text over them. She describes this as giving the characters in the photos an authentic voice, a new definition. The woman is deep, people. Needless to say, appropriation seems to be the focal point of the exhibit that spans two floors of the museum, alongside a 45-minute audio video and some old relics from her travels to Africa. She’s similar to Annie Leibovitz. However her edgy view of diversity is often uniquely compartmentalized. I guess that's what you could call black culture in today's society? Weems seamlessly manipulates “reality” in picture perfect scenarios making something totally normal through a slightly imperfect lens.

Overall, Weems’ ability to captivate some of the inner workings of black culture in a tasteful way is what drew me to her photography. The large scale photos awakened my relational emotions I hadn’t known existed until I doubled back to look at a staged photo of her at the Kitchen Table looking into a small mirror, as if she just ashed her cigarette. Hmmm. I thought about what family business was and what it has become now in regard to my life and my peers. Of course, it's been an integral part of our upbringing, even if we haven’t chose to acknowledge it just yet. We are all striving for the same thing, even if some of us came from fucked up households. There are some chaotic parts we all want present in our new adult lives that we all can identify as home.

Here's are my takeaways:

Framed ghosts of the past: We love showcasing our ancestors whether it’s for a#TBT on instagram and facebook. It’s to say that we won’t forget the past, and love reminiscing about how cute we were, or how much we look like our aunts and uncles.

My home is yours: The thing about establishing our own space hovers in the realm of hosting. This is a mature thing to adapt; but it’s also the most fun, even though I get “hosting anxiety” sometimes. However, looking past that, the feelings come more from striving to bring your guests the best possible comfort because you adore them so much. Do you want tea, use my beauty products, are you cold, take my sweater. One of the best parts one can attest to in our early lives is cooking for your loved ones. It’s the fastest way to win over someone’s heart! My experiences have been to the utmost precious and I couldn't be more please by my new apartment for past and future visitors.

Music: In general, I think that music is the single most factor contributing to recording history of now. Encyclopedia’s are obsolete and so today's "musical figures" (Beyonce, Miley, Taylor Swift, Kanye) really hold the key to evergreen storytelling. There’s a section of Weems' exhibit with large-scale blurry pictures of Kathryn Dunham and Josephine Baker. These figures are sadly fading in our culture just as she portrays them fading in her work. It’s a bold statement to what we as a culture identify with and how we chose to protect/save what we deem valuable for our own stories.

Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video is on view now at the Guggenheim Museum in New York until May 24, 2014.