Brown University is Carrie Mae Weems’ latest canvas. The renowned conceptual artist, known for work that melds art and activism through examinations of race, violence and gender, began installing “Varying Shades of Brown” (a multi-part activation) on the school’s campus in September.
Reimagined work by Weems will debut in five exhibitions placed in several Brown University buildings as part of the installation, which will be on view through early December. Her work will also serve as source material for several courses at the school. “What universities allow you to do is have a captive audience of the curious, of scholarship, of research, of inquiry,” Weems told Observer. “I think that is really sort of exciting—that doesn’t necessarily happen in a gallery, where anybody is walking in from all shades of life.”
Weems, 70, rose to prominence in 1990 with “The Kitchen Table Series,” a collection of black and white photographs telling an intimate story of identity through staged vignettes. The MacArthur grant-winning artist has since received widespread accolades for her photography, text, film and performance installations, exhibiting at national and international institutions and becoming the first Black woman to have a retrospective at the Guggenheim.
Historical events and figures are often at the forefront of her work. The Brown activation will highlight pieces like her 2012 Lincoln, Lonnie and Me—A Story in Five Parts, a video installation utilizing a 19th-century illusion technique, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and archival footage from the 1960s. “The importance of history has been with me for a very long time,” said Weems, who as a young child was regularly asked by her father to recite Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “We are haunted by history. I’m always looking back at it because it gives us a sense of how we arrived at this moment.”
“Varying Shades of Brown” encompasses more than video—a simple chair, box and megaphone make up an exhibition entitled “Seat or Stand and Speak,” while the “Usual Suspects” displays hazy photographs of Black men accompanied by textual messages on police brutality.
The activation at Brown initially came about via Avery Willis Hoffman, the former program director at the Armory who heads the university’s Brown Arts Institute (BAI). After viewing the artist’s 2021 multi-installation show “The Shape of Things,” Hoffman invited Weems to teach a course at Brown for the 2023 spring semester as the inaugural Agnes Gund Professor of the Practice of Art and Social Justice. “It was really a wonderful coming together of synergies,” said Weems.
For the activation, Weems and her students were asked to “consider for the first time a university’s campus as a broad canvas, as a resource for deeper thinking, and as an activation site that invited reflection and response,” according to a statement from Hoffman. The project provided Weems an opportunity to revisit works she created years ago. “Every time you install a work, depending on where it is, it changes, changes, changes,” said Weems.
Different setting, same questions
For her new iteration of the 2021 Land of Broken Dreams: A Case Study, an interactive installation expanding her decades-long exploration of history and power in the U.S., students incorporated historical materials of student activism at Brown University. The exhibition fit perfectly in the university’s intimate Cohen Gallery, according to Weems, making it “one of the best installations of that work we’ve done.”
While much of the installation’s works were created years ago, the questions they pose regarding resistance and revolution are only more relevant. “People weren’t interested in asking those questions 20 years ago,” said Weems. “I think it’s the way that artists are often ahead of the curve,” she added.
The world is continuing to catch up with the themes and ideas explored in her work. “It’s only in the last few years that people have really been looking at the killing of young black men, but one of the plates I have in my exhibition says ‘Commemorating every black man who lives to see twenty-one,'” said Weems, referring to a decorative plate she made in the early 1990s. “That was made 30 years ago.”
Students in Weems’ course at Brown gained a first-hand view of the tasks that go into an art practice. In addition to deciding which rooms exhibitions should be placed in, they made suggestions about who would be good participants for the installations, learning how to address an audience and invite them to a show. Weems has engaged with students for decades now, teaching at schools like Hampshire College and Syracuse University. “It can be just wonderful to be a part of the development of young minds, to have some sort of influence or impact guiding them toward certain kinds of questions,” she said.
In 2008, Weems worked with students at the Savannah College of Art and Design on a project examining pivotal events in U.S. history. Chronicling the assassinations of prominent figures from Robert Kennedy to Malcolm X, students posed for reenactments in a photograph series. “I didn’t know that based on it, students would change their majors,” said Weems. “It’s really kind of wonderful, that art has the capacity to change life, change the way we think and change the way we act in the world. It’s kind of a profound thing.”
Examining restitution and reparations in court
Earlier this month, BAI convened scholars, artists and activists invited by Weems to respond to Varying Shades of Brown and connect with the local community. This type of gathering is nothing new for Weems, who regularly brings together artists to contemplate issues of cultural and political significance.
Recently, she’s been drawn to the concept of courts. “I’m interested in questions of restitution, the return of stolen objects to their homelands, and I’m interested in reparations and how to use the court as both a conceptual space and a creative space for laying out these ideas,” she said. The artist is planning to stage a mock trial; one complete with actors, lawyers, and an examination of the legal and moral grounds surrounding these questions.
The project harkens back to a situation Weems found herself in back in the 90s when Harvard University threatened to sue the artist for using daguerreotypes of enslaved men and women taken in the 19th century and produced in the name of eugenics for Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz. Weems appropriated the images to create a poem of injustice in From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried. “I think your suing me would be a really good thing. You should. And we should have this conversation in court,” Weems told Harvard at the time. The school not only withdrew the legal threat but later acquired a portion of the series for its collection.
While the artist was eager to debate the moral questions surrounding the use of the images, she’s happy to explore such questions outside of the actual court system. “I’m glad they didn’t sue me,” said Weems, breaking into laughter. “I needed every penny that I’ve ever earned.”