Carrie Mae Weems exhibition opens in Allentown amid more contemporary push

The Allentown Art Museum turns 85 years old this year. It’s best known for its deep collection of Renaissance paintings and textile art. Over the last several years, it has been expanding its exhibitions and programming to include more contemporary art.

“We’ve definitely been working to balance that against the more traditional or historic art we have here,” said assistant curator Claire McCree, “to show people that there’s so much exciting stuff going on in contemporary art today.”

Case in point is Carrie Mae Weems, whom The New York Times Magazine recently described as “perhaps our best contemporary photographer.” While several Philadelphia-area institutions have collected her work, Weems has not had a solo show in this region in at least 20 years.

“Carrie Mae Weems: Strategies of Engagement” features work going back 30 years, but it’s not a retrospective, strictly speaking. The traveling show, originating at the McMullen Museum at Boston College, is a thematic exhibition highlighting Weems’ ability to provoke.

“We were interested in giving exposure to the most political of her work,” said Robin Lydenberg, a co-curator of the exhibition. “She doesn’t just do political work.”

Lydenberg, an English professor who focuses on visual narratives, focused on the innovative ways Weems engages her audiences.

The Allentown show opens with “The Hampton Project” (2000), a room-sized installation of hanging muslin scrims printed with historic photos of the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), which had been established to educate newly freed African-American slaves and Native Americans.

The legacy of Hampton is complex; it’s a place that had a humanitarian mission to educate disadvantaged populations, but did so in a way that stripped the students of their native cultures.

In the museum, you walk through a canopy of images of African- and Native Americans, as the hanging muslin banners brush your face.

Other works encourage the audience to consider their own forms of passive racism. “All The Boys” (2016) is a series of ghostly photos of young black men wearing hoodies, some of them paired with police reports that describe only their skin color, hair color, and eye color.

Another piece, from the series “Ain’t Jokin’” (1988), is a photo of a stoic African-American man with the text, “What Are Three Things You Can’t Give a Black Person?” To discover the punch line, the viewer must push a slide to reveal it, thereby participating in the joke.

Weems started in the 1970s as an activist and dancer, sometimes participating in street theater. When she discovered and embraced photography, she often included herself as a subject, playing the part of a trickster, the character of a beleaguered mother and wife, or a characterization of various female African-American stereotypes.

Weems’ use of play and irony is downplayed in this exhibition, so as to stay true to its title, “Strategies of Engagement.”

“One of the problems became that the exhibition became very intense and demanding on the viewer,” said Lydenberg. “There wasn’t enough to show her use of humor and her belief in hope and the future.”

To alleviate the gravitas of the exhibition, Lydenberg included one of Weems’ more recent works, “The Hope Peony” (2013) – a real flower. Asked to collaborate on the design of a garden at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to memorialize W.E.B. Du Bois, the sociologist and civil rights activist, Weems discovered a new variety of peony flower that had been developed, but not yet named.

“She got the American Peony Society to name it the W.E.B. Du Bois Peony of Hope,” said Lydenberg, who included photos of the flower in the exhibition. “That was a final gift to the viewer, after this very demanding exhibition.”

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