Carrie Mae Weems 2016 SVA Commencement

 

ON WEDNESDAY MORNING, Carrie Mae Weems took the stage at Radio City Music Hall delivering more of a performance than a speech. Her address at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) 41st commencement for undergraduate and graduate students was engaging, relevant, thought-provoking and memorable. She asked the audience, “How do you measure life?” And cautioned that “Art is a demanding mistress.” She stated that there is a difference between the “art world” and “the world of art.”

Her message to the fine arts students emphasized that as artists they have a responsibility to themselves, their craft, and society—which is evolving and changing. Being a “successful” artist, however you define it, Weems said is difficult, elusive, and requires lots of cash. You have to make a commitment, she told the Class of 2016, and “decide who you are going to serve.”

Toward the end of her remarks, she confided: “Working as an artist is one of the most difficult things that I do. At the same time it is the only thing that I can possibly do.”

A MacArthur “genius” fellow (2013), Weems lives and works in Syracuse, N.Y. Her photography-based practice investigates family relationships and examines gender roles and race and class issues. Her solo exhibition “Carrie Mae Weems: Considered” is on view at the SCAD Museum of Art through June 12; She is directing “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now,” a special performance at Spoleta Festival USA in Charleston, S.C. (June 4-5); and her book “Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series,” which explores one of her early and most acclaimed bodies of work, was published last month.

Before she arrived at the Radio City podium, Weems, who teaches in SVA’s MFA Art Practice program, was introduced as “first and foremost a storyteller.” True to form, she told a powerful story about the importance of SVA graduates maintaining their agency as they go forth in their life and careers. It was full of emotion, gesture and sincerity, and punctuated by two brief video works.

“How do you measure a life? By what means and by what measure? How you measure your lives is the most important thing, not just for you students but for all of us. I am asking myself this question constantly. How do you measure a life? How do you measure success? Failure? What is it?” she asked.

“How do you measure a life? By what means and by what measure? How you measure your lives is the most important thing, not just for you students but for all of us. I am asking myself this question constantly.”
— Carrie Mae Weems, SVA Commencement

“The way that you will measure your lives of course is all up to you. But, there are some other factors I think that we also have to consider and I want to examine some of them, very quickly. There are some things we have to remember because we live in a complicated time in a complicated country.”

 


Carrie Mae Weems addresses SVA 2016 Commencement at Radio City Music Hall (01:15:05-01:46:30), including introduction and honorary degree presentation).

 

Weems pointed out the disparities in the art world (in terms of exhibition opportunities, publishing catalogs and auction prices) and challenges women and people of color face. She rattled off specific stats and included her own experience—noting that “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video,” her 2014 mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York, was the first-ever solo exhibition for an African American in the history of the museum—as an example of what is possible and the hurdles that remain.

At the same time. she noted that America is on the precipice of change, with the population shifting to majority minority—becoming what she called “a nation of dark-skinned people.” Given this, Weems asked: “What does it mean for us socially, politically, culturally?”

Mark Bradford, Mel Chin, Suzanne Lacy, Rick Lowe, Theaster Gates, she said, are among the artists charting news paths in the world of art. “They are involved in a fine art practice that is coupled with the art of social and civic engagement. Their practices are mapping new territory for work and method and how we will work in the future. This is profound, phenomenal work,” she said “…They are developing new modes that are seminal for us to think about, for us to consider, as we move into this new complex world that we have entered.”

But you don’t have to be like them, she reminded the graduates, stressing the importance of their independence and pursuing their own truths.

“Knowing what you know, how will you engage? How will you practice, now? What will your practice be? ‘What are you committed to is the question …linked to how you measure your life.”
— Carrie Mae Weems, SVA Commencment

“Knowing what you know, how will you engage? How will you practice, now? What will your practice be? ‘What are you committed to?’ is the question that I think is absolutely important, which is, I think, linked to how you measure your life,” Weems said.

“By understanding what it is you commit to and how you pursue the level and the depth of that commitment, responding to this great shift, I believe, will require extraordinary imagination. Extraordinary imagination, extraordinary imagination, and deep and deep and deep innovation. This is really an extraordinary time. It is your moment and you really must, you really must, seize it!” CT

 

BOOKSHELF
A couple of recent books explore the practice of Carrie Mae Weems. Last month, “Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series,” which explores one of her early and most acclaimed bodies of work, was published. The exhibition catalog “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video,” coincided with her mid-career survey at the Guggenheim Museum and includes full-color images of works from throughout her career and contributions by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Franklin Sirmans, Robert Storr, and Deborah Willis.