‘Lonie ‘, Car­rie Mae Weems: Reflec­tions for Now Install­a­tion view Bar­bican Art Gal­lery, 2023 © Jemima Yong

For a long time, I’ve engaged in an on-going con­ver­sa­tion in my head, debat­ing wheth­er art is an indul­gent gift – to both make and exper­i­ence – or some­thing deeply vital to exist­ence, to human life, to mak­ing social impact, to genu­ine change. My pos­i­tion has fluc­tu­ated con­stantly in the now dec­ades I’ve been hav­ing this dis­cus­sion with myself. In my cur­rent stance (that might change again) I’m less con­cerned with hav­ing a defin­it­ive answer, but am largely con­vinced that there’s no ‘either/or’ choice to be made. The state­ments don’t neg­ate each oth­er. It is a genu­ine lux­ury to spend hours in an art space or listen­ing to music, breath­ing in the work, reflect­ing on the feel­ings and pro­voca­tions it gives, nev­er mind ded­ic­at­ing a life to study­ing and play­ing with tech­niques and medi­ums to inter­pret, express and pass on these thoughts in your own way. How­ever, I now feel very strongly that this exper­i­ence is essen­tial for some people’s exist­ence, that it greatly bene­fits humans in gen­er­al and, import­antly, can incite with­in people the motiv­a­tion, means and abil­ity to think, act and feel dif­fer­ently than they did before exper­i­en­cing giv­en pieces of work.

I think this is one defin­i­tion of social change, espe­cially when the rami­fic­a­tions of this pro­cess hap­pen­ing over and again, mak­ing infin­ite over­lap­ping ripples in the world, is prop­erly taken into con­sid­er­a­tion. There are many art­works, many artists, that poses the power to pro­foundly impact audi­ences is this way. When that hap­pens, the effects can change people. Car­rie Mae Weems is undoubt­ably such an artist; I know because her work changed me.

‘From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried’, Car­rie Mae Weems: Reflec­tions for Now Install­a­tion view Bar­bican Art Gal­lery, 2023 © Jemima Yong

When I was around 18, dis­cov­er­ing who I am, defin­ing what pur­pose I’d strive to achieve in my life, I’d spend a lot of time in museums and pub­lic art gal­ler­ies. In Lon­don the big ones are free. This is import­ant when you don’t have much money. I’d go and take the free edu­ca­tion and try to recon­cile the ten­sions between acknow­ledging how for­tu­nate I was to have access to so many resources, while study­ing how intric­ately inter­woven these insti­tu­tions are to colo­ni­al and imper­i­al dom­in­a­tion, and how so many of the things I’d be look­ing at were largely products of the pil­lage cent­ral to the the gen­o­cide of my people and now were used to sus­tain the world built through this per­vas­ive viol­ence.

It was on one of these trips to Tate Mod­ern that I stumbled across ‘From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried’. In a build­ing made to dic­tate the leg­acy of a man who profited from indus­tri­al­ised plant­a­tion slavery and one of its primary crops, amongst work that (I con­sidered at that time) often objec­ti­fies, divides, trivi­al­ises, dis­tracts and pla­cates, I found some­thing that spoke to me, about me, across time and space, con­nect­ing me to my Ancest­ors and my Des­cend­ants, under­min­ing the lies told about us, cel­eb­rat­ing our res­ol­ute­ness, the resi­li­ence passed down through gen­er­a­tions. The work spoke vis­cer­ally, with a defi­ant fist, a tender touch, a cav­ernous empathy, sor­row­ful wail and lov­ing embrace. The mas­ter­piece of visu­al, mul­ti­form poetry repur­poses pho­to­graphs inten­ded to dehu­man­ise Afric­an and Afric­an dia­spor­ic people and uses them to instead tell the story of our endur­ing human­ity. It speaks to and through the intergen­er­a­tion­al deprav­ity that has been waged against us, but also the lives we have used to res­ist against, sur­vive and flour­ish with­in, though not without grave costs.

I wandered around the room, absorb­ing each ele­ment and the whole piece for a very long time. I don’t know how long. It was the first piece of visu­al art in a fam­ous gal­lery that had ever moved me in this way. I didn’t truly under­stand the impact it had made on me until I was stood in front of it again, 18 years later, at Car­rie Mae Weems first major solo exhib­i­tion in bri­tain at the Bar­bican. Weems is a giant of con­tem­por­ary art. Pro­lif­ic, wide reach­ing in sub­ject and scope. It says more about the ‘art world’ in bri­tain than her that this is her first show of this scale here. But it is here now…and it is spec­tac­u­lar.

‘It’s Over—A Diorama’, Car­rie Mae Weems: Reflec­tions for Now Install­a­tion view Bar­bican Art Gal­lery, 2023 © Jemima Yong

‘Car­rie Mae Weems: Reflec­tions for Now’ brings togeth­er major works that span her life and career, with a focus on the past 30 years. You are treated to an oppor­tun­ity to exper­i­ence the power of her in-depth invest­ig­a­tion of Afric­an dia­spor­ic life, centered in the united states but with glob­al res­on­ance.

Among many con­nec­ted themes, Weems’ work pushes the bound­ar­ies of mul­tiple media, includ­ing lan­guage, and exam­ines the nature of power, time, social rela­tion­ships and hier­arch­ies, what it is to be a woman, Black­ness and cru­cially, the viol­ence of white­ness that soci­ety and the indi­vidu­als who con­struct it have been sub­jec­ted to.

In the first of two talks I was hon­oured to hear her give, in the groves of the Barbican’s Con­ser­vat­ory, Weems expressed that although her work may be con­sidered primar­ily ‘for’ and ‘from’ Black people, it is as much about white­ness as it is about Black­ness, as the two are so intim­ately con­nec­ted.

Weems spoke of her prac­tice, beau­ti­fully describ­ing the rites and ritu­al of using music to set the tone and rhythm of her day as she begins to write, jour­ney­ing through these portals to the space from which cre­ation comes through her and into her pho­to­graphy, film, install­a­tions and more, all of which she describes as ‘texts’ — con­structs through which ideas can be chan­nelled into and com­mu­nic­ated from. The exhib­i­tion flows like a text writ­ten from such a per­spect­ive. After enter­ing the main door, you’re guided to the gallery’s stair­case, where you can feel the omin­ous, darkened realm above, draw­ing you in. The incred­ible cur­a­tion of Weems, Florence Ostende and Raúl Muñoz de la Vega has cre­ated a power­ful Space­time with­in which the uni­verse that Weems has spent her life cul­tiv­at­ing and tra­vers­ing is expan­ded and con­tained for us to explore.

‘Paint­ing The Town’ Car­rie Mae Weems: Reflec­tions for Now Install­a­tion view Bar­bican Art Gal­lery, 2023 © Jemima Yong

With Time so cent­ral to her works, it is poet­ic­ally adept that, for a ret­ro­spect­ive, the audi­ence enter at the present. One of Weems’ latest works ‘Paint­ing the Town’ (2021), a series of pho­tos that at first glance appear as paint­ings, demon­strate imme­di­ately what is so power­ful about Weems’ work. This lack of imme­di­ate clar­ity in medi­um delays the real­isa­tion that the focus of this series is indeed paint; slo­gans painted in protest painted over to pro­ject an oppress­ive per­spect­ive. Weems and her team cap­tured the after­math of the 2020 upris­ings in the united states, spe­cific­ally Port­land, and the response of the city’s admin­is­tra­tion and busi­nesses to blot out the graf­fiti left on walls and build­ings. Weems has edited the pic­tures to resemble work from the abstract expres­sion­ist move­ment, draw­ing par­al­lels with how Black artists were painted out of the move­ment, just as calls for justice and affirm­a­tions on the sanc­tity of Black life were erased from the city.

‘The Shape of Things’, Car­rie Mae Weems: Reflec­tions for Now Install­a­tion view Bar­bican Art Gal­lery, 2023 © Jemima Yong

From this sug­ges­ted start­ing point, the cur­a­tion moves between time­less pieces, often set to the son­ic back­drop of the epic ‘The Shape of Things’ (2021) that leaks out of its pan­or­amic amphi­theatre, adding to the exper­i­ence of many oth­er pieces, soaked audi­ences in its ambi­ence. One of these pieces is the icon­ic ‘Kit­chen Table Series’ which was also brought to life as a dir­ect influ­ence of the impec­cable ‘The Score(s): III’ per­formed by the amaz­ing (Yewande YoYo Odunubi and Rohan Ayinde), one of the many bril­liant events that cel­eb­rated the open­ing of the exhib­i­tion. Anoth­er of these was the second talk I got to exper­i­ence, an hour-long key­note in the Frobish­er Aud­it­or­i­um. Weems per­form­ance was cap­tiv­at­ing, open­ing by dan­cing to Aretha Frank­lin and Frank Sinatra, out­lining her per­spect­ive on inter­pret­a­tion and artistry before guid­ing us sin­cerely, uncom­prom­isingly self-assured through a life­time of mak­ing, wit­ness­ing, for­ging and kick­ing down doors.

‘Kit­chen Table Series’ Car­rie Mae Weems: Reflec­tions for Now Install­a­tion view Bar­bican Art Gal­lery, 2023 © Jemima Yong

Car­rie Mae Weems is a force, of nature, to be reckoned with, to be exper­i­enced. She spoke with such poignancy about how so many Afric­an (par­tic­u­larly Amer­ic­an) women, des­pite being recog­nised for their excel­lence and influ­ence, spend their later life unap­pre­ci­ated, under­val­ued and often alone. This exhib­i­tion, I hope, demon­strates that this will not hap­pen to her; it can­not be allowed to hap­pen. Hav­ing now been 3 times – I might even go again – be good to your­self, go exper­i­ence this before it ends on Septem­ber 3rd, and con­trib­ute to step­ping this hope into real­ity. This is her first ret­ro­spect­ive in bri­tain, but it should not be her last.

For more inform­a­tion, watch the trail­er and pro­mo­tion­al inter­view below (with the amaz­ing Ron­an McK­en­zie) and fol­low the link. Fri­day from 5pm-8pm ‘pay what you can’ tick­ets are avail­able, and there are still access­ib­il­ity ses­sions avail­able.

Info and Tick­ets:


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Apex Zero

Apex Zero

An emcee, beat­maker, film­maker and writer from Lon­don with Gren­adian roots, Apex Zero has spent his life learn­ing and liv­ing Hip Hop cul­ture, using it to inspire and affect change. Based in Beijing for a few years and reg­u­larly tour­ing the globe, Apex is well trav­elled, and uses the les­sons this provides to inform his art and out­look. He is a mem­ber of the Glob­al­Fac­tion digit­al pro­duc­tion house and the inter­na­tion­al Hip Hop col­lect­ive End of the Weak.

About Apex Zero

Apex Zero
An emcee, beatmaker, filmmaker and writer from London with Grenadian roots, Apex Zero has spent his life learning and living Hip Hop culture, using it to inspire and affect change. Based in Beijing for a few years and regularly touring the globe, Apex is well travelled, and uses the lessons this provides to inform his art and outlook. He is a member of the GlobalFaction digital production house and the international Hip Hop collective End of the Weak.