Giving a Voice to the Voiceless

The artist in 1976.

In my attempts to experience culture, and be like Stella and get my design groove back, I went to the Art Institute of Chicago’s Target Free Day. In my silent reflection I sat and pondered over many of the pieces and paintings that I bring me back time and time again. What most excited me was the  relatively new Modern Wing. Because it was constructed while I was away for college, I haven’t had many experiences perusing it’s galleries and previously had been more occupied by Renzo Piano’s design execution than the pieces it was created to house. This visit was a whole new experience. I wandered from room to room devouring the Rothko’s and Kandinsky’s.

Then I unexpectedly came upon something that stopped me in my tracks. Mentally… I was speechless… which with me is something of a feat. I was taken aback by a black and white photograph of a black woman sitting at her kitchen table looking as it she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. It struck me a symbolic and iconic. It was just one piece of a series that I spent the better part of the next hour, but the most important thing was the three words on the placard announcing the artist: Carrie Mae Weems.

Feel free to stop and stare as I did.

I came home excited about my art museum discovery and wondering why the name sounded so familiar. Then a few days later a I perused old news blasts from my alma mater I discovered the same name in connection with the arts initiative I had been reading headlines and snippets about for months. This connection excited me to take a second look at the efforts Ms. Weems had been exerting in Syracuse, because its hard to not be curious about a place that was so integral in the last few years of my life. The project, Operation: Activate, seems to have brought a much-needed poignant look at life beyond the hill, as we referred to it when I was there.

The public arts campaign addresses the issues of gun violence plaguing inner cities, focusing on bringing change to Syracuse, NY.  In my research I learned that 98% of the victims of gun violence in the city are ethnic minorities.  It resonated with me both for the countless news stories I witnessed as a college student as well as the violence that is currently afflicting my hometown and many other locales nationally. The initiative uses billboards, signs, placards, and online pictorial campaigns to encapsulate the anguish and terror of those affected by these horrible situations. Like so many of her pieces, Weems’ work in this project personify the expressions and emotions of these experiences offering pointed cultural criticism of the piece of the black experience. Carrie always seems to find the strength or guile to say what no wants to actually say but we were all thinking.  Her in your face pieces make you stop and question the situation at hand.

Weems is no stranger to using her art as a vessel for political messages and this one takes it directly to the streets and away from the high culture walls of world-renowned art museums. Her strength is in  the narrative, telling a story in a still frame and taking you inside the emotions of her subject. This seems to be a great tactic to address issues of violence publicly, because the heart wrenching images force their way into the public realm, creating a community conversation and focusing people on the issues at hand.  In interviews, Ms. Weems has said that her purpose was to have a conversation with the perpetrators as well as encourage members of the community to take action and responsibility for preventing the senseless acts of violence. Part of her goal was to address this national issue, while attempting to stir the waters towards social change in the Syracuse community. For now she has given a voice to many in this city who have yet to be heard and delivered a difficult message that needed desperately to be said.

The artist’s other works can be enjoyed on her website and in her monographs, . For more information on Operation: Activate you can view the Initiative’s Facebook Page: Social Change. Carrie Mae Weems has been a noted photographer and artist for over 25 years and is known for tackling issues of race, gender, politics and class in a variety of mediums. Her projects have been exhibited in many noteworthy galleries like the Whitney Museum of Art, MOMA, and the Art Institute of Chicago.


About Tya W.

Tya Winn: architect, urbanist, designer, cultural connoisseur, and the next great thing! View all posts by Tya W.

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