July 10th, 2017
Carrie Mae Weems in conversation with Kambui Olujimi
In the wake of the non-indictment of Officers Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson for the killings of Eric Gardner and Mike Brown, I began a series of interviews with African-American artists discussing the impact of these continued affronts to the citizenship, personhood, and freedom of POC, and particularly, African Americans. How do we as cultural producers digest and transform this legacy? Over the last three years, a number of these interviews have been published, hopefully expanding the conversations around these issues and creating new dialogues, as it is not the burden of those subjugated to convince their perpetrators that humanity extends beyond them, nor should it be their life's work to struggle to be recognized and treated as human. This interview was conducted over the phone with Carrie Mae Weems in the summer of 2015. One of the most influential contemporary American artists, Weems’ work, spanning more than thirty years of photographs, audio, texts, digital media, and installations, is deeply concerned with the structures and consequences of power both on an interpersonal and systemic level.
Kambui Olujimi: So today I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the impact of police violence, and see where the conversation goes.
Carrie Mae Weems: Oh, (chuckling) why me? Why would you give me that?
Because I'm interested in how it impacts us as makers, and you, in particular. I was revisiting work of yours that deals with the construction of fictions and I’m interested in how these narratives move from a place of mythic consequence into concrete consequence. Whether it's Ain't Jokin or other works, I’m interested in what happens with them once they come out of that symbolic space.
Where did you grow up?
Well, in one way I grew up in both Portland, Oregon and in San Francisco. I left home very, very early, so I think of myself as really growing up and being a woman in San Francisco. But I was born in Portland.
When did you leave?
When I was about 16. I moved away from home and moved to San Francisco when I was 16, maybe I was 17—I was 16 or 17.
What sort of interaction and or awareness did you have with police presence at that time if any?
No, no, not in anysignificant way, you know. I mean, because I'm a woman! I'm a woman, so the way in which police approached women and the way in which they approached men were very, very different. So that's not something that I really have to normally worry about. Right? It's not actually a part of my everyday reality. And of course I'm from Portland, Oregon, and Portland was a very quiet city with a very small black community. And in San Francisco, I moved there at the height of the hippie movement, you know what I mean? So, if there was anything, we were simply aware of authority. We were more aware of the power and the function of the state than we were of the police, in a way.
In demonstrations, I had my few encounters with police but in terms of the daily aching pain of police surveillance—that wasn't part of my life. Fortunately. Fortunately. Fortunately.
Yeah, I see.
That's one of the reasons that I'm so concerned, really for black men. Because, I realize that it's a part of their daily lives: how they're treated, how they're disrespected, how they're put down, how they're manipulated, how their manhood is constantly violated. In a lot of ways, I think that police brutality is much more about men seeing other men; it's about the power certain men exact and a certain kind of control over other men through the abuse of their authority. That's really what police violence is, right? Because men are doing that to one another constantly…we're brought up in a society where men flex their muscles at other men continuously. That's how we mark them as supermen, or heroes, or bullies, whether they're on the football field or the soccer field, it's all the same thing—
Or they’re soldiers—
—they're expressions of violence. But I think sports are often a reflection of the violent society in which we live.
You bring up this idea of “flexing,” and the police brutality, or police violence, being exacted on men, particularly black men. And while that's—
Well, I think that's all men. I think that black men are certainly treated in a very profound way, but I think that this epidemic of male violence begets male violence. The way it’s acted upon men, the way in which men challenge one another's masculinity is a constant theme throughout culture, certainly throughout our culture. And then it gets exacerbated, and then it's the way in which black men are abused by, and within the system.
I was talking to my 15-year-old nephew, Djelimory the other day about this interview series and one of the things that he brought up was, “how do you get to a place where you don't see humans?” Where you don't see the person as human in order to exact whatever violence you desire. I was wondering how I would answer that and how you would you answer that as well?
Hmm, I think I might formulate it slightly differently, maybe it's not necessarily that you're not seen as human, rather it's how you’re dehumanized (laughs). It's a different function. In other words, how do I control the aspects of this human, how do I subjugate them, how do I snatch their humanity? How is humanity snatched, how is it taken from you? Well, one way is to kill you. Another way, so that you live with it, is to belittle you. But these are all control mechanisms. And seeing them differentiated, for me, is very interesting and telling. I think what needs to be underscored is that all of this sort of violence that we are currently experiencing within our culture in relationship to black lives is happening under Obama's watch. It's not only a way of dehumanizing black men in general; it's a way of dehumanizing the president in the process (laughs). I think it's exceptionally fascinating. You see what I'm getting at…that not even the president has a role to play in this chapter. That's pretty amazing. That we'd be having this conversation during his presidency is very convoluted and very strange. It has a lot to do with the way the right is really attempting to undermine the notion of black humanity in general. And the police force and its authority, for the most part, stands for that.
You've lived through a lot. You’ve worked as a labor organizer, seen the civil rights movement and the War on Drugs. Every “now” always feels like it's the most relevant one, but do you feel like this process is more prevalent now than it was in the ‘70's and the ‘80's? Do you feel like this is a particular moment in direct relationship to those other moments?
I think that social media gives a new aspect to what's going on. If you were to look back to the climate historically, black people were constantly killed; this isn’t a new phenomenon. Our humanity is constantly being trampled on; it isn’t a new reality. So, we know that that's an ongoing thing, but the difference is that we have social media. We have tools in the hands of people who are simply watching or looking. There are cameras everywhere, surveillance is everywhere. And so now, we know some things in a very particular way that we didn't in the ‘60s or the ‘70s, or the ‘80s for that matter. So we have the choking of Eric Garner, very clearly. We see this happening before our very eyes. But it was different than the Rodney King beating, similar but different. We knew about Rodney King because it was filmed, that it wasn't simply one photograph shot from a distance, but it was, you know, a sustained video—that we could witness this thing, and that caused riots around the country. And the same is happening through social media with the use of cameras and so forth. I think that, in some ways, the difference is that we now have 24/7 news coming at us from a thousand different sources. And, for the most part, we don't have to rely on prime time news to tell us what’s going on. Not like the person in the street who sent out a YouTube video that goes viral.
That need for top-down reporting is sublimated but this sense of, “I’ll just post this.” Like the guy who posts that video was literally just standing there—
—exactly, exactly, without, necessarily any political intent, just a guy. Like the shooting in Charleston [the killing of Walter Scott by police officer Michael Slager], just a guy, who just happened to be outside with his phone, walking his dog. Information keeps coming from all these new vantage points, news sources, political sources. Some people will use the same social media page to say “see how we keep kicking these niggas asses”(laughs). You know what I mean? This material can be used for almost any purpose. On the one hand, you might use it to make a broader case about the importance of thwarting the police, and a fascist might use the same information as a rallying point, a great triumph of white supremacy over the black body (chuckling).
It’s true? It’s true.
It’s all unfiltered; it's just all out there. I think that my concern, frankly… is that what this does to us, the persistent/consistent violence and attacks on our humanity, keeps us from dealing with the other part of our lives. You’re a brilliant artist, I’m an important artist, and the first thing that we talk about, really, is police brutality!
Is there a feeling of inundation, do you feel inundated by both the images and—
Absolutely! Of course I do. To be constantly asked to sort out white people's problems for them. In the midst of that, it means that I can't move on to higher territory. I can't go to the places of exploration that I'd like to go. Because I'm dealing with this race bullshit. In the meantime, you look across the platform of what's going on with culture in general, and white people are having the time of their lives (laughter). There’s exciting film, theater, the opera; you name it. They're dealing with all the great themes of life, and here we are still duking it out over, how do we get the police off our backs because they're dehumanizing us. I think it's horrible. It's limited our capacity for greater expression. And it's the thing that I try to deal with constantly—how do I break through so that I can actually begin to participate in the fuller aspect of my life. I’m more than a color. I'm more than a problem! I'm more than a problem… I just had to share that. I think you probably feel the same way.
Yeah, every day. And that’s one of the reasons for these conversations, for me, is to talk about how you then get to that point. How do you, Carrie Mae, get to a place where you can think about these other things to create.
I…you know, by just doing it. I think, at times, this is a double-edged sword. You know part of this is of course, absolutely, my reality and there are ways in which I have to negotiate these aspects of difference. And there is something about that that I think can be very, very important and has been absolutely useful in my life and my work—because they are very, very closely related. I'm not a divided soul. What comes first my art or my life? My art is my life, and my life is art. They're one and the same. But I do think that there is a way in which we're jacked up and left out of the larger discourse on art because the work has been trapped in this particular form of observation. To the extent of being kept out of modernism is to the extent that race has been imposed upon us. Or vice versa—the extent that race has been forced upon us as a sort of ongoing psychic oppression is the extent that we are kept out of the larger discussion of what modernism is, but our inventions are in relationship to the modern practice. I'm certainly interested in critical inquiry, so I think that a lot of the works, not always but often, are a way to look critically.
For instance, the series on Rome, I’m roaming, on museums and so forth. Those pieces allow me to discover place, because I had to travel extensively to make them, but also, to experience architecture, because I'm absolutely in love with architecture. Architecture has been a real source of my work for a long time, as a way of examining material culture, and the way in which culture expresses itself through architecture. So, whether I'm looking at the Piazza del Popolo in Rome or looking at [The Guggenheim] Bilbao in Spain, or the Louvre in Paris—looking at these extraordinary structures, how they're made, how they're assembled, and what they have to say about who we are and how we build the world around us. So I'm very interested in those kinds of ideas; knowing that I have other interests and pursuing those interests matters to me, offering up fresh ideas and realities for myself.
Was it ever difficult to access that sense of being lost and discovery?
No. No, not at all…but art is difficult to talk about in a way, right? If I ask you, what does that mean… that video, that photograph? That's a difficult thing. What's a Rothko painting? What’s, Duchamp's Nude Descending the Staircase? The abstract language is quite difficult to master. Certain kinds of questions come at you constantly, and function as a way of grounding a conversation, working through a sociological problem. But ultimately I'm not a sociologist. I'm an artist, one who thinks about culture and social ideas, but I'm not a sociologist by any stretch of the imagination, you know? Or (laughs) a psychologist…
I'm interested in how we, as makers, interpret this American phenomenon. One thing that I see coming up again and again in these interviews, which I've experienced myself, is that this violence is the product of fictions. And you talk about it as a process of dehumanizing, and I see it as a blinding that comes from these fictions. As makers, we create fictions and offer alternate perspectives. Do we have a role, do we have an obligation, do we have any agency in this economy?
Well you've probably answered that question for yourself already Kambui, haven't you?
I have, I have answered this for myself. But this might be a new conversation for readers or something they’re processing. And perhaps it's my naiveté, but I'm interested in how you have come to that.
Okay. I mean...one person's fiction is another person's reality right?
One person's truth is another man's lie. It's complicated...all of this stuff is very complicated. I'm going to answer it this way. I have a sense that I have greater responsibility. I do- it's my life. I care about life. I care about death. I care about what happens to people. My life’s work has been concerned with what happens to people. I chose the projects that I worked on because I care about what happens to people. It allows me to connect with them. That's just life, and that gets expressed in many different ways. Race is just one part of it. It's an important part, but it's just one part, right?
The thing that I'm interested in is how do I use my position? How do I use my life as an artist and the many platforms that I'm able to stand on to do exciting projects that allow other artists to participate in those platforms?
Can you discuss some of those? I know you’ve been a labor organizer…
Well, I created a number of projects that are very dear to my heart, The Institute of Sound and Style, that's my baby, and the Social Studies project. I started Social Studies many years ago so I could collaborate with other artists on very specific kinds of projects. For instance, a request to do something with the museum from Eatonville but the museum just doesn’t have the capacity to work with artists. Via Social Studies I’ll pull together a group of artists to do something special for Eatonville, Florida in honor of Zora Neale Hurston. And you know, we do something for that community it otherwise couldn’t do for itself, because it doesn't have the tools or the connections or platform or the money to do it.
And the Institute of Sound and Style is a youth organization I started because of police violence. Not just police violence, but the gang violence that was going on actually in my neighborhood, right here.
In Syracuse, New York. I started it like four years ago. So the Institute of Sound and Style is a training program for artists, trying to get kids off the street and into things that are really constructive. I’m trying to do it using my resources, my organizational skills, my determination and my commitment to people and to my neighborhood to create safe spaces for kids to actually live and work in. We pay our kids so that they receive at least the minimum wage for their training, and we train them in photography, video, sound editing and so forth. And now in the coming years, we'll hopefully become a full-fledged vocational training program that goes throughout the year targeted towards young people between the ages of 18 and 25, which is really the most vulnerable age group amongst young black and brown kids. I am doing this project alongside other artists who have similarly approached community building, like Theaster Gates and B.A.R. (Black Artists Retreat), Mark Bradford's project in LA working with kids (Art + Practice), Rick Lowe's project (Project Row Houses), Tim Rollins and K.O.S. These artists and organizations are creating some new models for the ways in which we can engage positively around important community issues, so that we're not stuck on one note.
Or static – reacting!
Exactly. Cause when you're reactive, you're just blowing in the wind. But if you're proactive, that's something else. So I think that what Theaster, Mark Bradford and Rick Lowe are doing is very proactive.
I think you left somebody out. What about what you did at the Guggenheim? Can you say a little about that?
That was a very important project. It came on the heels of my traveling exhibition and again I thought about how important it would be to use this platform to really crack open this museum that has rarely seen African American work. I'm the first black person to do a solo exhibition there retrospectively, which is phenomenal. I was completely baffled and floored by this. I thought it would be really wonderful, given the way in which I've critically looked at museums, to use that platform to invite another hundred or so artists to participate with me over the course of a four-day gathering. It wasn't a symposium: it was music, and poetry readings, artist presentations, concerts. I also pulled together a round table with B.A.R. so the Black Artists Retreat could think about the way they wanted to work in the coming years. It was a very dynamic project, and I continue to do other similar projects, using my platform to create other platforms. It's exciting work, important work, and I get a chance to hear what lots of artists are thinking about. I really love wearing all of those hats because it allows me to both express and get in to the breadth of myself as a human being. Rather than wait for somebody to say, "Hey, this is where we want you to be," you grab it and say “This is where I'm going.”
You feel like these conversations fuel you? Keep you young? Cause you are real young. You are real young.
I am? What does that mean?
Yeah, I don't mean that like pejoratively, I mean like there's a youthfulness and a running that I wondered does that come from you know, these communities and bringing these people together and all that energy.
Oh, I don't know, but I like that idea. I'll take it. (laughs!)
Artist Kambui Olujimi was born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He received his MFA from Columbia University and attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. His solo exhibitions include: Zulu Time at Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, A Life in Pictures at MIT List Visual Arts Center; and Solastalgia at Cue Arts Foundation. Olujimi was a member of the literary group the Darkroom Collective in Boston and his writing have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Painted Bride Quarterly, Modern Painters, and Trace. His novella and exhibition monograph, Wayward North, was published by Art in General. Olujimi has been awarded residencies from Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Civitella Ranieri, and QueenSpace. He has received grants and commissions including The NYSC/NFYA Fellowship, The Jerome Foundation Fellowship, and MTA Arts & Design for the City of New York Commission.