Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems’ Exhibition Showcases Black Life In America

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Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems’ Exhibition Showcases Black Life In America
Visitors observe and discuss the various series in “Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue” on Nov. 17 in Seattle. The exhibition is organized into five sections in which Bey and Weems’ works are grouped together thematically. (Photo by Faith Noh)

By Faith Noh

A photography exhibit that reveals a glimpse of black life and history in America opened last month at the Seattle Art Museum with “Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue,” a show composed of thematic series of the two award-winning photographers.

“Black people were killed because they looked at the wrong person. I want my subjects to reclaim their right to look, to see and to be seen,” says Bey in the exhibition’s description on SAM’s website. The exhibition displays more than 140 works from various decades.

Bey and Weems first met in the 1970s in New York City. As friends and colleagues, they shared similar themes in their artwork despite their distinctive career paths. Another similarity is their prestige – Weems was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame in 2020 and Bey was inducted a year later.

This exhibition is the first time that their artworks have been brought together. The exhibit, organized by the Grand Rapids Art Museum, debuted earlier this year and will travel to various locations around the country through next year.

In the exhibition, many pieces revive parts of Black histories that are often neglected. For example, Weems’ “Sea Island Series” reveals the distinctive Gullah culture preserved by enslaved Africans on the coastal islands near Georgia and the Carolinas.

Visitors enter “Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue” for opening night at the Seattle Art Museum in Seattle on November 17. The exhibition will be open until January 22. (Photo by Faith Noh)

On opening night, the Seattle Art Museum hosted a conversation with Bey, one of the two photographers of the exhibit. The conversation was moderated by Catharina Manchanda, a curator for the SAM.

They talked about Bey’s thought processes throughout his 40 years of photography.

“Even in your earliest photographs, you really have a very thoughtful approach to your subjects,” Manchanda said. “You approach each of these subjects with a lot of respect and dignity, and you give them this incredible presence in those photographs.”

Bey responded by describing the ethics behind his work.

“I wanted to find ways to make the process more reciprocal, more dialogic,” Bey said. “How can I address this hierarchy that does exist between photographer and subject, which usually privileges the photographer?”

For example, Bey shared how he took photos of the Black community in Harlem.

“I was aware that even though I was African American, I was still an outsider. I was still a stranger,” Bey said. “So it was important for me to spend a lot of time in that community and establish my presence in the community before making work. Also to familiarize myself with the community I haven’t spent time with since childhood.”

Bey and Manchanda also discussed the landscapes in Bey’s “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” series. The locations of these photos are part of what is considered the Underground Railroad.

“There are no people in these photos,” Manchanda said. “It’s really the landscape that embodies a history, so there’s something very beautiful about the tactility of these photographs.”

For example, “Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky)” shows a solemn black-and-white landscape of restless waves and dark clouds—and nothing else.

Bey explained his intentions behind this artistic choice.

“The person actually moved from in front of the camera to behind it,” Bey said. “Because I take those pictures from the vantage point of someone moving through that landscape.

“It was trying to see that landscape through the eyes of a fugitive African-American making their way to freedom,” Bey said. “It determined the position of the camera.”

Audrey Destin, author of “The Vegetarian and Her Hunter” and “Moving Forward Optional,” attended the exhibition at its opening.

“I have a background in photography from college,” Destin said. “My major was fine art and my emphasis was black and white photography, so I was excited to see these works.”

“I loved ‘The Kitchen Table Series’ by Carrie Mae Weems. It really spoke to me as a woman as well as an artist,” said Destin. “The way each photo was centrally located at the kitchen table to tell a woman’s life story was extraordinary.”

“Untitled (Man Reading Newspaper)” is a photograph in “The Kitchen Table Series” by Weems. This series showcases the artist herself in a carefully staged photo essay that communicates the lived experiences of a woman. (Photo by Faith Noh)

Destin also shared what she will remember most about the exhibition.

“I will remember both the haunting, dark photographs of Dawoud Bey’s ‘Night Coming Tenderly, Black’ and ‘The Kitchen Table Series’ by Carrie Mae Weems for their strong ability to tell a powerful story,” said Destin.

Tickets for this exhibition are available online or at the museum. More information about the exhibition can be found on the museum website.

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