In 1976, on his first day teaching a photography class at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Dawoud Bey was greeted by a “seemingly shy woman with big expressive eyes,” he later recalled. “Hi, my name is Carrie,” she said as she held a Leica 35mm camera. “Do you think I could be a photographer?”
Carrie Mae Weems could, and she did, and all these years later these two American artists – both born in the years 1953 – remain close friends, confidantes and colleagues.
Recent large-scale exhibitions of Bey’s photographs have been presented at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and Tate Modern, London. Weems’ work has been seen at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, the Guggenheim Museum, the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo and the American Academy in Rome.
Opening Thursday at the Tampa Museum of Art, on the first stop of a two-year national tour, Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue includes 140 photographs. It’s arranged in five sections that present the two artists’ work in thematic pairings, emphasizing both their mutual concerns and distinct artistic approaches to societal life, American history and more.
The collection, according to the Tampa museum’s Director of Communications Nina Contreras Womeldurf, “amplifies the artists’ conversation with history and African American culture, with each exploring similar themes of race, class, representation and systems of power throughout their careers.”
Ron Platt, Chief Curator at the Grand Rapids Museum of Art, organized the exhibition. “They both started out making what’s typically documentary street photography,” he told an Iowa TV station, “small black and white images.
“But as photography began to change in the ‘70s, and take on all kinds of different possibilities, they were experimenting and really doing groundbreaking work. And so the exhibition really demonstrates that.”
In a Facebook Live conversation between Platt and the artists, Bey made this observation: “One way of thinking about the work is that we make the work we need to see. We make the work that we want to see. It doesn’t exist, so we get back to work and bring it into being, these things that we want and need to see.
“Understanding that, as human beings, if we want and need to see it, it will likely resonate with someone else as well.”
Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue will be at the Tampa Museum of Art through Oct. 23.