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This artist is taking on America’s history of violence

Multimedia artist Carrie Mae Weems hosted a day of music, art and talk in a public event called “The Shape of Things,” exploring America’s history of violence. Jeffrey Brown reports from New York about what inspired Weems to take on the project and what message the group of 50 artists wants to send.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, an artistic response to a divided society.

    Jeffrey Brown returns and takes us to New York for a look at a recent day-long project titled The Shape of Things.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There was music and movement, a full day and night of art and talk.

  • Man:

    Always question democracy.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The public event, titled The Shape of Things, featured more than 50 artists and thinkers who engage social issues in their work.

    There were well-established figures such as jazz pianist Jason Moran and newer voices like Kimberly Drew.

    It was held at the historic Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan, built in 1880 to showcase and honor military might, but now an exhibition space for visual and performing arts.

  • Carrie Mae Weems:

    How are artists responding? How are artists maintaining a level of dignity and hope and progress and work in the face of this devastating violence? I want to know what that looks like.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It was the brainchild of artist Carrie Mae Weems, who called this a convening.

  • Carrie Mae Weems:

    This brings together, I think, an extraordinary group of people who are thinking deeply about the moments in which we live and are as concerned as I am about addressing it.

    And each of us has to figure out how in our own lives and in our own work.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The 64 year-old Weems is best known for her photography and, through it, her exploration of history, race, and power.

    We first spoke in 2014, when she became the first African-American woman given a solo exhibition at the prestigious Guggenheim Museum. Among the works on display, the 1995 series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, where Weems altered 19th century photographs of slaves, and the 1990 Kitchen Table series, in which Weems herself is a character in a set of carefully constructed scenes from a woman's life.

    In recent years, she's taken the aspect of performance further, to a theater piece she created called Grace Notes, a response to the 2015 murder of nine members of a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white supremacist.

  • Carrie Mae Weems:

    What is violence? How would you characterize it?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the armory event, Weems set a theme for the day, what she called the history of violence.

  • Carrie Mae Weems:

    How violence disrupts and dislocates, displaces, fragments not only the self, the person, but also the society.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The participants picked up on that in a variety of ways.

  • Adam Foss:

    Today, there are 2.3 million people in jail and prison.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Adam Foss, a former prosecutor in Boston, spoke on mass incarceration and the need for criminal justice reform.

  • Adam Foss:

    One in three black men born today will spend some time in prison.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Navid and Vassiliki Khonsari, who've developed leading video games, showed a new virtual reality experience to put people in violent settings to see how they'd respond.

    And poet Aja Monet read her poem called "The First Time" about an interaction she witnessed between her teenaged brother and a police officer.

  • Aja Monet:

    I couldn't undo all the hate that builds watching the men you love cower, watching the men you love cower, bend, kneel to the scows of overseers, all the bright and magic that dims the light, lowers the bright and magic dims.

    This police officer stopped us and felt really entitled to question us, interrogate us. And I noticed the demeanor in my brother change, and I noticed how that made him feel and how it made me feel to watch that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The 30-year-old Monet lives in Southern Florida and has worked with Carrie Mae Weems before.

  • Aja Monet:

    If Carrie asks you, you don't say no. You just say yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Another young artist saying yes was John Edmonds, who showed a series of photographs of young black men.

  • John Edmonds:

    There is a different way of entering and thinking about political art, art that's not blatantly about sort of sending an overt message, but more so inviting the viewer to kind of contemplate on their own sort of mind-set.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Do you think that an artist has a responsibility today to address political issues overtly?

  • John Edmonds:

    It's an artist's responsibility to be mindful of the political climate that they're in, because art and photographs and images, they have a great amount of power.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That climate for the people here meant a response to the growing divisions within the country.

  • Carrie Mae Weems:

    For me, Donald Trump has really brought something so forward to bear on us all. Right? He's brought forward very clear ideas about what America should and shouldn't be.

    And it's for that reason I think that he's been — his election has been absolutely remarkable and necessary, because it lays bare the clarity of the moment, right, and how splintered the country is and what people are really fighting around.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One thing I'm wondering, though, today, here, who is this for? Are you worried that this is more like preaching to the choir here?

  • Carrie Mae Weems:

    No, no, because even when we're grappling with the same ideas, we don't all think the same things. We don't all believe the same things.

    For even the — quote — "liberal," the sort of progressive side, they're grappling with who they are in relationship to this moment as well.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But do you feel — has anything changed in terms of your sense of you as an artist, your responsibility?

  • Carrie Mae Weems:

    No, it's only deepened. It's only deepened.

    I do think that as I mature and I age, I think more of creating these spaces, of widening the path, and being clear about that, so that others can do their work more easily in the future.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Weems says she wants to build on the Shape of Things project, in her own work, and through future collaborations with other artists and presenters who took part.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.

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