Carrie Mae Weems

„Slow Fade to Black“

April 23–June 4

Metro Hall
Structure on King St W at John St

Hours:
Open 24 hours

 

Placing the spotlight on Black women in popular culture, Slow Fade to Black (2010) recasts images of singers and performers captured at the height of their success in the 20th century. Presented at a crossroads in Toronto’s Entertainment District, Carrie Mae Weems’ installation of 13 larger-than-life portraits—bridging several generations—portrays Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Leontyne Price, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, Shirley Bassey, Ella Fitzgerald, Abbey Lincoln, Eartha Kitt, Koko Taylor, and Katherine Dunham. While some of these women retain their iconic status today, others are relatively unknown. Weems contends that their legacies fade as time elapses, yet many of their white, and especially male, counterparts—often performers deeply influenced by groundbreaking Black artists—disproportionately maintain prominence; a circumstance she seeks to illuminate and change.

Weems plays on the theatrical term “fade to black,” denoting the fade into complete darkness of the lighting in a staged scene, or the filmic fade, where an image transitions to or from a “blank” screen. The term also contains a latent reference to Black skin and the problematic history of its depiction, both technically—with photographic materials historically calibrated to white skin—and culturally, with Blackness understood as secondary or invisible within a predominantly white culture. Her “slow fade” also alludes to the cultural devaluation of aging bodies—especially those of women. She visualizes their “fading” by blurring reclaimed publicity photographs, and in some cases by applying a tinted hue—suggestive of the many shades of discrimination based on skin tone. Weems scripts a dual narrative that denounces the systemic erasure of these groundbreaking women and simultaneously proclaims their enduring cultural value.

Coming together at Metro Hall, these consummate entertainers are portrayed in a chorus line of impassioned performative moments amplified by gesture, stance, and gaze. Through image sequencing and juxtaposition, the cinematic effects of focus, angle, and zoom create a rhythmic visual harmony.

An evolving narrative within Weems’ ongoing investigation into the representation of Black women in the annals of culture, Slow Fade to Black counters their slide into obscurity, renouncing history’s deficiencies. In reframing these iconic figures, she foregrounds the corrosive power of both time and cultural hierarchy, but also revives and reinforces their legacies.

Supported by Liza Mauer and Andrew Sheiner, Cindy and Shon Barnett, The Stonefields Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

Curated by Bonnie Rubenstein

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„Heave“

CONTACT , Toronto, Canada

4 May – 27 July, 2019

 

Organized by and co-presented with the Art Museum at the University of Toronto

This is a story within a story, how to enter this history, what to show, what to say, what to feel. It is a creation myth—how things came to be as they are.—Carrie Mae Weems, Constructing History (2008)

Carrie Mae Weems testifies, without equivocation, to how violence is an ongoing history that pulses through our present. With a sensibility honed to the rhythms and workings of power, she points to a tidal pull of oppressions, inextricably linked, recurrent and indelible. Sounding a sustained alarm that echoes throughout the exhibition, she implores: How did we get to this point?

In answer, she offers a fulsome history lesson, firmly rooted in the upheaval of the 1960s—an era punctuated by loss, harm done, ritual discrimination and assassinations. Each of the rooms forming the exhibition invokes a familiar interior—the classroom, the living room, and the entertainment complex—with its attendant rhetoric, tempo, and laws. Violence lurks in each of these sites and with the devotion of an archivist, Weems catalogues the exercise of power and full toll of human cruelty.

Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment (2008) is a body of work that Weems created in concert with students from the Savannah College of Art and Design, who she enlisted to re-enact key moments of past political violence. Dramatic tableaux posed by the students revisit the most publicized and archetypal of political assassinations, including those of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and later, Benazir Bhutto. In the unfinished hostilities of these moments, Weems exposes the underpinnings of today’s extremism, hate crimes, and demagoguery.

In Heave: Part I – A Case Study (A Quiet Place?) (2018), a constructed domestic space contains an array of signs and found ephemera, including broadcasts, revolutionary icons, popular music, magazines, and games. These everyday furnishings of American life denote both personal experience and structural violence. On a commanding mid-century modern desk, Weems places a set of bound books bearing the titles The Prison Industrial Complex, The Battle for Representation, The Skin in the Game, The Corporate State, and Spies, Surveillance, and Cyber Attacks. Together with a video compilation by the artist that weaves between historic newsreels and a contemporary choreography, these artifacts suggest the landscape of her own lived history. In an interview, Weems states: “I don’t deal with the history of violence constantly because I want to, but really because I am compelled to. My background, my culture, my concerns, along with my skin, the way in which I have been marked by time forces me in some ways to do so.”

In Heave: Part II (2018), a theatrical space is adorned by red stanchions, illuminated only by the light of a projected stream of videos. The installation is a detailed reckoning with the roots of violence in America, revealing a culture that consumes violence as daily entertainment. Among the most poignant material included is People of A Darker Hue (2016), which records the too palpable evidence of white supremacy at work and what it means to live day to day under constant fear of death for merely being in the world.

In the title Heave, Weems invokes the cadence of breathing. Under threat, we gasp for air, we retch, we convulse. So too does the social body in crisis—starved, abused, agitated, pulled apart, it heaves. In a surge of hatred, she sees a latent ailment propelled to the surface, brought into irrepressible visibility. Amid this violence, her melodious voice raises in an incantation to lament, to mourn, to howl.

Supported by Liza Mauer and Andrew Sheiner, Cindy and Shon Barnett, The Stonefields Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

Curated by Barbara Fischer and Sarah Robayo Sheridan

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„Anointed“

CONTACT , Toronto, Canada

18 April– 06 September, 2019

Cast in fiery red and inscribed “Anointed,” this powerful image portrays singer, songwriter, and actor Mary J. Blige in the moment of being crowned as royalty by artist Carrie Mae Weems. The monumental photograph’s setting, on a Victorian-era façade, offers a fitting context for “the queen of hip-hop soul,” whose commanding presence foregrounds Weems’ copious tributes to the legacies of Black women in the entertainment industry. Blige’s music has been a backdrop to Weems’ life, and this image speaks to the singer’s 2017 album Strength of a Woman.

Donning contemporary haute couture and a vintage crown, Blige cuts a noble figure in a scene that echoes both the pictorial constructs of advertisements and the profiled stance of a headshot. Derived from Weems’ commissioned photo shoot for W Magazine, the portrait and its associated interview reflect on Blige’s personal challenges following the realization that she “got played” by her now former husband. Conveying the humbling experience that enabled deep introspection and inner strength, Blige confessed: “I was never good enough; I was never pretty enough, smart enough. And there was someone chosen over me”—a crisis of self-esteem, reinforced by patriarchal and societal idealizations of what it means to be a woman. Responding to this painful real-life drama, as well as Blige’s formidable role in the film Mudbound as a vulnerable, raw individual surviving racial injustice, Weems’ image presents the performer assenting to a regal bearing—embodying the concept of triumph. Anointed celebrates not only Blige’s outward splendour and achievements in entertainment, but also her personal strength and resilience. Both artists proclaim their power to define who they are and what is important, and thus what should be celebrated, re-presented, and preserved for history.

Anointed resonates with Weems’ public installations Slow Fade to Black and Scenes and Take (2016)—both of which are shown nearby along King Street West. All address the representation of Black women in popular culture, informed by the prejudicial conditions of their professions. Positioned adjacent to Weems’ related exhibition in CONTACT Gallery, Anointed heralds the projects on view across the city, positioning Black women as critical voices in the cultural landscape.

Supported by Liza Mauer and Andrew Sheiner, Cindy and Shon Barnett, The Stonefields Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

Curated by Bonnie Rubenstein

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CONTACT Gallery
80 Spadina Ave Ste 205

Hours: Tue–Fri 11am–5pm

Carrie Mae Weems tells impassioned stories about humanity, probing the realities of losing and gaining privilege. Throughout her artistic practice, she has sustained a commitment to laying bare the socio-cultural processes of oppression, critically examining history and its reverberations, as well as popular culture and its manifestations. She breaks down structures of authority, tackling the culturally defined markers of identity—class, race, gender, and sexuality—and their implications in the realm of representation. Based out of Syracuse and Brooklyn, New York, Weems makes photographs and films, writes, directs, and acts, frequently performing the role of protagonist or witness. Using seductive aesthetic strategies to draw viewers into a personal engagement with difficult issues, her work provokes questions and rouses empathy.

The Festival’s spotlight on Weems situates her work at five distinct locations across Toronto, representing the artist’s first solo presentation in Canada. These gallery exhibitions and public installations combine pivotal streams of Weems’ practice: her sustained focus on women, which confronts issues of both repression and empowerment; and her ongoing investigation into the devastating effects of violence, especially against Black men. Weems’ exhibition at CONTACT Gallery, Blending the Blues, features photographic works spanning three decades that draw together these parallel themes.

Positioned at the gallery’s entrance, Color Real and Imagined (2014), a larger-than-life, soft-focused portrait of American singer and pianist Dinah Washington, highlights Weems’ approach to colour and its associated theories. Blocks of primary colour obscure the appropriated publicity photograph of the self-professed “Queen of the Blues”—the leading Black female recording artist during Weems’ childhood in the 1950s—to redress the fading legacies of Black women performers in popular culture. These ideas are further explored in Weems’ public installation Slow Fade to Black at Metro Hall and Scenes & Take at TIFF.

Weems uses colour to reflect on conceptions of race and how these are framed, a strategy that recurs throughout the exhibition. In Untitled (Colored People Grid) (2009) colourized black-and-white portraits of African-American children—pictured at that moment in life when race surfaces as an integral issue—reference the complexity of skin tone and racial vernacular modulations, such as Blue Black Boy and Golden Yella Girl. Through these interventions, Weems points to hierarchies of social status based on colour, that privilege light shades of skin. Historical imagery is appropriated to confront racial conflict in Blues and Pinks (1992 – 93), which reconfigures photographer Charles Moore’s iconic photographs of the 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama. These images depict protestors—primarily Black youth—being sprayed with high-pressure firehoses and physically brutalized by police and attack dogs. Weems’ subtle overlay of pink and blue hues evokes tenderness and repositions the past in the present, underscoring the ongoing systemic violence toward people of colour by police and other institutions of power; a history that is interrogated in the concurrent exhibition Heave within the Art Museum at the University of Toronto.

Weems’ examination of police brutality and the mechanisms of oppression resonates in the series All the Boys, (Blocked) and (Profile) (2016). By appropriating the “objective” positioning of the police mugshot and applying colour, Weems manifests layered meanings. Across the exhibition she uses blue, with its many connotations—melancholy, despair, the musical genre of the Blues, coolness, heaven—and here the colour imbues her figures with iconic, saint like qualities that complicate notions of criminal stereotypes. Weems’ images speak to the condition of being Black under a continuing legacy of institutional racism.

As part of an ongoing cultural dialogue built by Weems and her contemporaries, Untitled (Spike Lee Grid) (2018) pays homage to Spike Lee’s films and critical insights into Black American culture, racism, systemic oppression, and resilience. Lee has a career that parallels Weems’ own, as does acclaimed musician and actor Mary J. Blige, the subject of The Blues (A.K.A. MJB) (2017). Both works emerged from magazine commissions, with the Blige images made in light of her Oscar-nominated performance in the film Mudbound, where she portrayed a mother coping with poverty and racism after World War II. These elegant images deem Blige royalty, focusing on her beauty, power, introspection, and perseverance—themes that are elaborated in the public installation Anointed at 460 King Street West.

A fervent advocate for social justice, Weems’ poised diplomacy and unwavering idealism result in eloquent, timeless works that give voice to searing messages and a profound point of view. While her pictorial accounts are derived from personal associations and societal constructs, they are quintessentially about all of us. Ultimately, Weems’ work centres on power and love.

Supported by Liza Mauer and Andrew Sheiner, Cindy and Shon Barnett, The Stonefields Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

Curated by Bonnie Rubenstein

Installation view:
Carrie Mae Weems, Slow Fade to Black, 2010., Public Installation at Metro Hall, King St. W. at John St., Toronto, April 23–June 4, 2019. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, the artist, and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.
installation view:
Carrie Mae Weems, Slow Fade to Black, 2010., Public Installation at Metro Hall, King St. W. at John St., Toronto, April 23–June 4, 2019. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, the artist, and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.
Installation view, Carrie Mae Weems, Heave, Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, the artist, and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.
Installation view, Carrie Mae Weems, Heave, Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, the artist, and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.
Carrie Mae Weems, Anointed., Installation at 460 King St W, Toronto, 2019. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy CONTACT, the artist, and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.
Installation view, Carrie Mae Weems, Heave, Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, the artist, and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.
Installation view, Carrie Mae Weems, Heave, Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, the artist, and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.
Installation view, Carrie Mae Weems, Heave, Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, the artist, and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.
Installation view, Carrie Mae Weems, Heave, Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, the artist, and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.
Carrie Mae Weems, Installation view of Blending the Blues, CONTACT Gallery, Toronto, May 1 - July 27, 2019. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy CONTACT, the artist, and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.
Carrie Mae Weems, Installation view of Blending the Blues, CONTACT Gallery, Toronto, May 1 - July 27, 2019. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy CONTACT, the artist, and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.
Carrie Mae Weems, Installation view of Blending the Blues, CONTACT Gallery, Toronto, May 1 - July 27, 2019. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy CONTACT, the artist, and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.