Acclaimed artist Carrie Mae Weems, deemed “among the most radically innovative artists working today” by The New York Times, is a photographer and video installation artist currently examining the complexities of American identity. In this Q&A, Kenyon Victor Adams, Grace Farms Foundation’s Founding Arts Initiative Director and Consulting Co-Curator and the newly appointed Director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum & Archives, talks about Carrie Mae Weems and her lecture and performance in March.
Q: Carrie Mae Weems is an internationally acclaimed artist and has a long list of prestigious awards and accomplishments. Tell us about her upcoming work at Grace Farms.
Adams: We have invited Ms. Weems to lecture on her body of work, with an emphasis on her current examination of violence. And we are happy to put ourselves in her hands for an evening of collective inquiry.
Ms. Weems’ material could be said perhaps to be memory: as a photographer, she is working with memory. In some way, the issues she is now signaling in her work can seem to remind one of the past. But as Faulkner is often quoted as saying, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”
Ms. Weems includes the public in her questioning and inquiries. By beginning with the lecture, it’s a way of signaling that discourse – her investigation. I believe the lecture itself is an event that will prepare and signal further inquiries. It will also signal the beginning of her residency at Grace Farms this year.
For the performance of Past Tense, Ms. Weems is bringing an extraordinary group of artists to join her in this work. She is a wonderful sort of narrator and convener in the midst of all of this inquiry. And by working in this way, sustaining these investigations and these various inquiries, she has arrived at this place where she is ready to take on subjects that are really daunting.
Q: Will you say something about the performance work, Past Tense?
Adams: Past Tense may be as much a product of her total body of work, as it is a continuation of her more recent examinations of violence, including her performance work, Grace Notes, which she made in part as a way to contemplate the response of the families of the Immanuel Nine in Charleston, South Carolina. Ms. Weems seemed to be meditating on the possibility of sustaining dignity in the face of terrific and perennial violence, considering the nature and terms of that kind of resilience and strength. [A white supremacist gunned down and killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. The group consisted of six women and three men who had come together for a weekly Bible study.]
Q: Carrie Mae Weems commented in a recent New York Times’ interview about how her mother gave her space to create when she was a young girl. It was such an important moment – being allowed the space to imagine and create. Why is space important to an artist?
Adams: The goal is to provide a very helpful or generative space for an artist who is carrying a work that needs to be brought into the world. Grace Farms Foundation believes they are able to do something contributive in this way. The artist can be in the late stage process of thinking and making, or perhaps the work is being formed. Grace Farms is able to provide a place that is kind of off the beaten path, or getting away a bit. But at the same time, there is a kind of rigor to the space. At the same time, you are being brought into dynamic relationships with various contexts, materials, and people.
Grace Farms allows various disciplines and sectors to be brought into proximity with one another. When that happens, the possibilities really are endless. The architecture demonstrates and also makes this possible. This happens in spaces of the River building, but even in the variety of habitats on site, the various interactions with the land, the place itself.
This way of interstitial thinking – thinking in between the spaces – is where the magic happens at Grace Farms. This space and the method by which the Arts Initiative approaches complex subjects addresses human life, in a substantive and comprehensive way, in the 21st Century.
Q: The collaborative process is important to Carrie Mae Weems and Grace Farms. Why is it important?
Adams: Ms. Weems is really a leader in this kind of inter-disciplinary convening. Grace Farms has begun a similar methodology and approach with its Practicing series. Her convening style, I would say, has also been influential in terms of how we are convening and collaborating at Grace Farms.
Ms. Weems has been doing this for decades and Grace Farms has been doing it for a few years, and although Grace Farms is a new organization, her work and methodology is well suited for a place like Grace Farms.
In the same way, Ms. Weems is bringing and connecting these various – seemingly disparate – contexts, subjects, and figures. And through her own sort of focus of inquiry, her own lines of inquiry, which are intersecting – all find an actuality in the spaces she is making. At its best, that is what is happening at Grace Farms. That is what the River building is doing. It’s a place that is taking on eradicating human trafficking, a place that is taking on clean supply chains, a place that is taking on sustainable architecture in relationship to labor. The Foundation wants to bring various subjects, people, and community into proximity to one another. That dynamic is generative.
Q: In what ways do you think Carrie Mae Weems’ work is making a difference, leaving the world transformed in some way?
Adams: I think it’s impossible to talk about her work in a singular or one-dimensional way. You have to refer to many other great figures, institutions and disciplines to really describe what she is doing. You have to talk about Elizabeth Diller, David Adjaye, Sarah Lewis, Theaster Gates – you have to start making a list.
With the Guggenheim, with that opening, she convened with scores and scores of other artists and many of those artists she is still working with. A few of them received something of a debut that day. When I say debut, I mean a new level or deepening of their work, and of course, exposure. I think she always has a constellation of artists, makers, and thinkers around her, that allow her to constitute that space.
Ms. Weems is really a force, and one of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. Always vital, determinedly luminous, a gift to the world and to Grace Farms.