Carrie Mae Weems: Past Tense 


UNC’s Memorial Hall, Apr. 10

Carrie Mae Weems’s Past Tense is as difficult to categorize as Weems, a multimedia artist, is herself. The performance is a hybrid, a lecture that weaves together spoken word, videos, and photographs, as Weems guides the audience through her creative process, or what she describes as “a throbbing at the edge of consciousness,” organized by “words, phrases, images, and elements.”

Weems begins Past Tense with an inquiry—“How do artists borrow, learn, and appropriate from one another?”—and then tours the audience through her own influences and contemporaries, including Louis Armstrong, Kara Walker, and Nick Cave. Weems draws a thread between appropriation, repetition, understanding, and imagination with love, improvisation, and grace. She shares images from both of her seminal 1990 Kitchen Table Series and her 2006 Museums series, as well as more recent photographs of Mary J. Blige and the set of the television show Empire.

With these images, Weems is asking the audience to think about the relationships between race, gender, sexuality, the artist, and the cultures she moves through. Before Weems’s Past Tense performance for Carolina Performing Arts, The Beautiful Project held a workshop (sponsored by CPA) where participants illustrated tables to reflect their individual narratives and consider what is necessary to nurture and maintain the literal and figurative kitchen tables in their lives. 

Near the end of Past Tense, at a point when the audience seems both anxious and enthralled, Weems introduces a connection to Antigone, Sophocles’s famous tragedy about a woman who is shunned and punished for wanting to bury her slain brother. Weems, troubled by the rise of nationalism and white supremacy that has led to the deaths of African-American men and women across America—in traffic stops, on playgrounds, and in churches—leads us to understand that the timeless story of Antigone’s sorrow is now the one she wants to tell.

She shares excerpts from her 2017 short film, People of a Darker Hue, a mélange of moving images with brass-and-strings accompaniment, which is somehow both painfully atonal and harmonic. Eventually, against an indigo background, we see a black man slowly running in place. Weems reads the names, ages, and relationships (“he was a father,” “a brother,” “a sister,” “a child”) of black people lost to violence in recent years. Weems repeats “The violence is not like the movies … no fast cuts, no close-ups, no fades.” This is the most moving part of her performance. People are silent; I see tears and pain. We are tasked with reckoning with the violence and loss of life, and we remember empty attempts to dehumanize and forget these lives.

Past Tense asks us to find, in Weems’s words, “new approaches to old questions” as we “critically engage the tumultuous and remarkable time in which we now find ourselves—both tragic and liberating.” The combination of image and movement tasks us with imagining, and perhaps improvising, our way toward a more just society.