Carrie Mae Weems speaks in a voice pitched low, as if she is sharing the secrets of a lifetime. It's a warm voice, a voice that speaks poetically of travels, adventure, novels and the works of other artists, always with a smile hovering just at the edge.
Weems is one of the most important living artists today. The recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" Grant, the Prix de Roma, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from Harvard University among many others, she's been extensively profiled by publications of note and record, including PBS's "Art21." She is also the first African-American woman to have a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. Weems has a BFA from the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia; an MFA from the University of California, San Diego; and she studied folklore in the graduate program in Folklore at the University of California, Berkeley. Currently, works from her mid-'90s suite, Sea Islands Series, 1991-1992, are on view at the Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah. The series is the result of the artist's fascination with the Gullah Geechee peoples of the coastal islands of the Southeastern United States.
Folio Weekly hustled up to Georgia's First City to attend the lecture that accompanied the exhibition's opening night.
In her discussion, Weems described the catalyst of the works: her disbelief when her father would tell her stories of this group of black people who lived on islands off America's Southeast Coast. A people who had their own language, own way of doing things and their own belief systems. She said that when she was a young woman, she went there and discovered he had spoken the truth.
She then spent about three years traveling back and forth between California and Savannah, developing this body of work. Steeped in photography wed to text and clay, the pieces seem to exist in a realm of storytelling between objective truths and dream truths. Doubling-down on this feeling are three recordings of songs and games that place the visitor in the environment of the Sea Islands.
During her presentation, Weems talked about herself simply as "just a hard-working girl," and quantified art as "a vehicle for possibilities." She talked of how she spends every morning "considering the work of other artists," often novelists. And that when she read Toni Morrison it was "on her knees" from the recognition the writer's words sparked.
From there she talked about appropriation as a tool, "all of us are always engaged in the art of appropriation." And she addressed the #metoo movement, "... the weight of the female body and what it has been asked to bear ... we are living through extraordinary times."
Though ostensibly discussing her own work, she expanded the conversation: speaking directly to the artists in the audience. She said, "The work tells me where it wants to go, tells me what it needs; as artists, you are always building to your own archive."
Weems then addressed her placement of her body in photographs that specifically reference Western art history, because she never saw "this dark body" in the art of Europe. In direct relation to the construction of blackness, Weems commented, "The binary of black and white is fairly uninteresting [to me]; the people in my neighborhood were never black, they were high yellow or cherry red ... ." So those colors-and many more-often make their way into the artist's works.
Playfulness too makes a not-entirely-unexpected appearance, "within seriousness, there's very little room for playfulness; but in play, there is room for seriousness."
She wound up the evening by touching on the politically stratified times in which we find ourselves, and though worried about who wins the battle between what democracy means and what the country looks like, she is cautiously optimistic. She shared a nightmare about a great wave crashing down, about to sweep her away, but toward the end of her dream, she said she was surrounded by faces all singing "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder," as a protest song.
Ev'ry round goes higher, higher, indeed.
Sea Islands Series is on view through May 6, in conjunction with Paul Stephen Benjamin's Reinterpreting the Sound of Blackness, at Jepson Center, 207 W. York St., Savannah, Georgia, $15-$20, Telfair.org.