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Saturday, June 3, 2023

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’s and Weems’ works are thematically paired. (Photo by Faith Noh)

By Faith Noh

A photo exhibition that reveals glimpses of Black life and history in America opened at the Seattle Art Museum last month with “Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue,” a show composed of thematic series from the two acclaimed photographers. 

“Black people have been killed for directing their gaze 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 over 140 works from several decades.

Bey and Weems first met in New York City in the 1970s. As friends and colleagues, they have 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 their artwork has been brought together. Organized by the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the exhibition debuted earlier this year and will travel to various venues across the country until next year. 

In the exhibition, many pieces resurrect parts of Black histories often neglected. For instance, Weems’ “Sea Island Series” reveals the distinct 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 the opening night at the Seattle Art Museum in Seattle on Nov. 17. The exhibition will be open until Jan. 22. (Photo by Faith Noh)

On opening night, the Seattle Art Museum hosted a conversation with Bey, one of the two photographers of the exhibition. 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 considerate approach toward 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 dialogical,” Bey said. “How can I address this hierarchy that does exist between photographer and subject, which generally privileges the photographer?”

For instance, 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, establishing my presence in the community before making any work. Also, to familiarize myself with the community that I had not spent time with since I was a child.”

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 to be the Underground Railroad.  

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

For instance, “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 has actually moved from being in front of the camera to behind it,” Bey said. “Because I’m making those photographs from the vantage point of someone moving through that landscape.

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

Audrey Destin, author of “The Vegetarian and Her Hunter” and “Moving Forward Optional,” attended the exhibition during 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,” Destin said. “The way every photograph 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 the most from 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,” Destin said.  

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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