Carrie Mae Weems: RESIST COVID / TAKE 6!

Nasher Museum of Art, Durham

At the corner of Broad Street and Markham Avenue in Durham, a striking black-and-white photograph is currently displayed across several windows of the American Dance Festival (ADF) building. In the photograph, several people hold hands; red and black text on the right reads, “DON’T WORRY, WE’LL HOLD HANDS AGAIN.”

The image and message resonate and recall a time before COVID-19 when we touched our friends and loved ones freely. The message is also aspirational and gestures toward such a future while reminding us that the distance we keep now will allow us to meet again..

The photograph is part of a multi-city project, RESIST COVID / TAKE 6!, by multidisciplinary artist Carrie Mae Weems—that is currently hosted by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

As of late January, more than 400,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. By mid-February, that number is expected to grow to half a million. To say we’re in an unprecedented public health crisis is an understatement—and clear, accessible messaging about how we can protect ourselves and stay healthy is paramount.

RESIST COVID / TAKE 6! weaves Weems’s decades-long exploration of image and text into a public health awareness campaign that centers those disproportionately impacted by this pandemic—Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people—and pays homage to frontline and essential workers.

Though the Nasher Museum is still closed to the public, the project is available to viewers as a public art exhibit at nearly 50 sites on Duke’s campus and beyond, and is made further accessible via a student-made interactive map on the Nasher’s website.

Weems, a 2013 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow renowned for her iconic, story-rich photographs, is also a filmmaker and installation artist. In January of last year, she became Syracuse University’s first University artist-in-residence; as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, she began working on the project alongside her friend and collaborator Pierre Loving. Since its launch in Syracuse, the project has touched down in several U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Dallas, New York City, and Portland.

“I’m not a policy-maker. I’m not a politician,” Weems told artnet News, of her drive to create the project. “I’m a citizen concerned about what’s going on in my community. This coronavirus isn’t going away anytime soon, and neither are the underlying issues affecting people of color that it has made even more apparent.”

According to census data, Black people comprise 22 percent of North Carolina’s population, yet account for 26 percent of COVID-19-related deaths. Hispanic and Latinx people comprise less than 10 percent of North Carolina’s population, yet account for nearly 25 percent of all COVID-19 cases.

Health literacy and access to care are key to slowing the virus’s spread in our most impacted populations here and across the country. Weems’s work, which emphasizes CDC recommendations, both informs and connects. As she told artnet News, “I hope to build awareness by asking questions, by providing the simple facts of our extraordinary realities, and embedding them inside powerful imagery.”

Installing RESIST COVID / TAKE 6! at Duke was a multifaceted endeavor, with work on light poles, billboards, windows, and other sites throughout campus, reaching essential and frontline workers and students alike.

The project has also expanded into the community: In collaboration with the City of Durham, other display sites include Lakewood Shopping Center, Duke hospitals and clinics, Durham Technical Community College, and inside several city busses.

Black, red, and white are the project’s predominant colors, helping to convey a sense of gravity. At the Nasher Museum entrance on Campus Drive, banners feature an out-of-focus person in a hoodie—recalling the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin—and read, “BECAUSE OF INEQUITY, BLACK, BROWN, & NATIVE PEOPLE HAVE BEEN THE MOST IMPACTED BY COVID-19. THIS MUST BE CHANGED!!!” The text speaks directly to Weems’s assertion, on the project’s website, that “Structural racism has always been a pre-existing condition.”

Several light pole banners lining Duke’s campus read, “STOP THE SPREAD / MASK-UP / BACK-UP / WASH-UP,” in white and red text against a black background. One banner, with white text against a red background, reads, “DON’T FORGET TO WASH YOUR HANDS!” Another: “THANK THE WORKERS OF THE WORLD!!!” These messages remind Duke faculty, staff, and students that stopping COVID-19’s spread is also their responsibility—that they are members of a larger community, and that their actions matter.

And then there’s the large window cling at the Rubenstein Arts Center, telling passersby to stay home and stay safe. Beside it, the words “LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL,” in large red text, sprawl across a black-and-white photograph of Weem’s mother, a factory worker, from the artist’s portrait series, Family Pictures and Stories (1981-1982).

Similar to conceptual artists Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger—known for text-based works informed by what they perceive as truths about society, capitalism, power, living, and loving—Weems asserts that she is “making work that I need to see because I believe that it’s important for myself. And because I am not an alien, I assume that it’s going to have an impact on somebody else.”

The project’s images and messages are both practical and beautiful: a mix of straightforward facts and aspirational aphorisms.

“I’m hoping to see all my friends and my family on the other side of midnight,” Weems told Atlanta Mayor and COVID-19 survivor Keisha Lance Bottoms in an interview. “And that we can make it through this thing.” It’s a statement as simple and profound as holding hands.

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