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Fall Arts 2022

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This fall, Seattle residents will have the opportunity to see the works of two of the greatest living photographers: Dawoud Bey and Carrie Mae Weems. Both are world-renowned artists who have meticulously told stories about black people, black history, and black subjectivity in the United States since the start of their careers in the 1970s. And, to top it off, they are friends.

Originally organized by the Grand Rapids Museum of Art in Michigan, Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: in dialogue will stop at the Seattle Art Museum from November 17, 2022 to January 22, 2023.

Although they have been friends for almost fifty years, this show is the first time that Bey and Weems have appeared together. Although their approaches to the medium of photography differ – Bey is often more documentarian while Weems focuses on the self and narrative works – both artists are fundamentally interested in reframing and challenging power dynamics in photography. ‘art.

“It’s almost like the United States is catching up with the important work that these artists have done over five decades,” says Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art, which curates the exhibit here in Seattle. “Whether it’s a celebration of the black community, whether it’s a way of highlighting the power imbalances that are in the landscape…or the stories that have been overlooked, these are all themes that they have dedicated their entire careers.”

Composed of more than 140 parts, Daoud Bey and Carrie Mae Weems: in dialogue will be divided into five roughly chronological sections that walk through the artists’ early work – establishing their perspectives, their interest in Black American history, and how landscapes appear in and impact their works. This exhibition spans half a century of their respective careers and contains photographs from Bey and Weems’ best-known series.

Here is a preview of three photographs included in the exhibition to prepare you for the opening of the show in November:

Chez Daoud Bey Couple in Prospect Park (1990), gelatin silver print

I wonder where they are today… Courtesy of stephen daiter gallery and sam

From 1988 to 1991, Bey toured major cities across the United States, set up his large-format Polaroid tripod in a public place, and asked black people to pose for him. Anxious not to just “take,” Bey used a camera that instantly printed a negative as well as a small black-and-white Polaroid. He gave the photo to his subjects to make the photographic encounter fairer. This series, called Street portraits– is composed of intimate and complex depictions of public life, performance and presentation of black people at the time.

In Couple in Prospect Park, lovers look at the camera. Their gaze is direct and confident – they look you looking at them. But despite our interruption, there’s still an intimacy and casualness about them, as if Bey has caught the lovers in the middle of a private embrace. Bey Told High Museum of Art that photos like these were born out of a desire to “describe the black subject as intricately as anyone else’s experiences.”

by Carrie Mae Weems Untitled (Woman and daughter with children) of The series of kitchen tables (1990), gelatin silver print

Weems makes these narrative scenes so deeply psychological. courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery and SAM

Taking the more narrative route is that of Weems Kitchen table series. In 1989, she set up a camera at her kitchen table and photographed herself acting out various fictional scenes. The framework of the series never changes – the wooden table and the single triangle ceiling lamp – but she Is.

Woman drinks sadly alone at table, shares meal with male lover, gets hair done by friend, does makeup with daughter, looks directly at camera. This photographic essay depicts the life of a black woman as she presents herself in different guises – mother, wife, friend, sister, herself – and the different psychological states these modes entail. While darkness is certainly an element explored in this series, it also universally speaks to women’s experiences in their private lives. This particular set of works has had a profound impact on the world of fine arts. Generations of artists who were his contemporaries or later in Weems describe the Kitchen table series as a foundation for their practice, reshaping their understanding of the medium of photography as well as the representation of black people.

Chez Daoud Bey The Birmingham Project: Taylor Falls and Deborah Hackwork (2012), archival pigment prints mounted on Dibond

These are large-scale photographs, so we feel confronted with the presence of the subjects. courtesy of stephen daiter and sam gallery

by Bey The Birmingham Project is a series of portraits commemorating the four girls from the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, as well as the two boys killed in the ensuing violence. Led by members of the Ku Klux Klan, the terrorist attack spilled over into the United States which was plagued by the civil rights movement. To compose the diptychs that make up the series, Bey invited children and adults from Birmingham to pose for the portraits. The children were the age of those who died in the attack while the adults were the age the victims would have been if they had not been murdered. Each photo is made up of two different images, but staged so that each image forms a whole. As in Taylor Falls and Deborah Hackwork, Taylor and Deborah reflect each other through a pool of time and experience. The entire series is a symbolic meditation on the impact of racial violence on generations of the black community, but also serves as an imagination of what the future might look like.

Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: in dialogue opens at the Seattle Art Museum November 17, 2022 and ends January 22, 2023.

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