Carrie Mae Weems is looking to make a connection “with my sisters and brothers, and the people that I love” in an era where social, political, environmental, and public health crises abound.
The Resist Covid Take 6! posters and billboards you may have seen around the University of the Arts campus are the MacArthur Foundation fellow’s way to do that — and there are more of these public artworks to come.
The project, which is a pandemic-awareness campaign in the form of public art, offers a meditation on the times and underscores the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black and brown people, along with encouragement that we’ll get past this.
The five installations now on exhibit — four on the Avenue of the Arts and one outside the Art Alliance at Rittenhouse Square — are the first phase of the project. David Yager, president and CEO of the University of the Arts, hints that a gallery exhibition and a presence outside of Center City could follow. Resist Covid Take 6! will be on view in Center City through at least October.
Weems is a widely admired figure in fine art globally and artist-in-residence at Syracuse University. She created Resist Covid Take 6! with her friend and collaborator Pierre Loving.
She spoke to The Inquirer about the project, her artistic process, and these times we’re in. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
When did you know that you’d be taking up a project like this during the pandemic? What inspired you?
I was simply, really, at the very beginning of the pandemic on the phone [with a friend]. This shutdown was just happening; maybe it had been in effect for only a few days. And certainly we knew that then, because Black people and brown people are always historically disenfranchised, that they would be impacted the most severely by COVID. And that turned out, of course, as you know, to be absolutely true.
You’ve spoken about your artistic process in the past, and feeling a responsibility to tell stories of people who’ve been left out of fine art portraiture. Where was your mind as you were putting this project together?
Where was my mind? I think it was probably not far from where it normally is, and that is really considering all kinds of violence on Black bodies. All of this colliding with the death of George Floyd has put everything on notice in another kind of way. I think, though, that the work remains the same; the intention remains the same.
And I find [this time] extraordinarily exciting and useful and helpful in a way of organizing my work, which I’ve been organizing around for many, many, many, years and organizing my thoughts and organizing my practice.
So it doesn’t really change. It simply intensifies, or it’s clarified, or it gets more specific when it needs to be, more poetic when it needs to be, more pointed when it needs to be, more political when it needs to be, more spiritual when it needs to be. But, of course, at any given moment, one is always dealing with all of those.
Do you have hopes for people to take any specific emotions away from the public installations that you have right now in Philadelphia?
The project is really about trying to assist saving lives by systematically informing people over and over and over, even when our president won’t, the basic things that they must do in order to survive this pandemic. They have to wash up. They have to back up. And they have to mask up.
I’m really trying to go for people simply taking the required actions needed for their survival. So there’s emotion only to that extent that you understand the importance of what’s being said.
The reason why I asked that question is because I was struck at how loving a lot of the images felt.
Ohhhhh. Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh. Life Is Beautiful [a billboard on display at 320 S. Broad St.] is my mother. The images [from another work, Don’t Worry] are all of my friends and my colleagues, of course taken long before the pandemic hits in order to sort of underscore this very rare moment, like, “Don’t worry, we’ll hold hands again.”
In an interview you once said, “I think I’ve spent my life really examining ideas about power and probably because for the most part, I didn’t think I had any.” And after that, you spoke about figuring out what it means to be empowered and how to empower. Has this pandemic taught you anything about power, and if so, what has it been teaching you?
Well, I think that’s a very large question. But certainly one of the things that should be clear to all of us by now is that absolute power absolutely corrupts. These protests are forcing systems all over to look at themselves and they’re trying to do a corrective. But we have to still look at the system that creates it. The same system cannot carry justice.
Your personal power is your ability to critique it, your ability to see exactly what’s going on and to name it, to name it. I think naming things is really quite important.
Why is naming so important, do you think?
If you don’t name it, then you don’t know what it is. You have to call it out. We live under a capitalist system. We don’t live in actually a representational democracy, for that matter. It’s just called that but it’s not really that. Democracy is something that we’re struggling for. It certainly has not been achieved.
What is it that we were talking about? What is it that you’re asking for? What is it that you want, specifically? Naming it and calling it is one of the greatest strengths that you have as an individual.