Safety Curtain 2020/2021

Carrie Mae Weems: Where I enter...

Inspired by the broad history of beauty in art, photography, architecture, and fashion, New York-based conceptual artist Carrie Mae Weems enacts a moment of pleasure and imagines worlds of abundance that encourage interiority of mind and a spirit of contemplation. Weems has received critical, global attention for her photographs and her performativity in photography and video that focuses on black life globally. This setting, the Vienna State Opera House, is the ideal home for this image as concepts of stage and staging codes of beauty are performed in this large-scale photograph that simultaneously explores treasured moments as well as literal and symbolic treasure.

Beauty in opera often comes as much from the performances presented on the stage as from the set design, dramatic scenes, attire, and the actors themselves. Beauty is enacted in this photograph with the centering of iconic singer Mary J. Blige (Queen B), the black female subject adorned in fur, diamonds, and pearls, as she surveys and affirms her beauty in an oval-shaped mirror, with a red velvet backing. I imagine that viewers in this opera house will appreciate the monumentality of black beauty on the global stage as they sit in their seats looking at objects of beauty in Weems’s photograph on the safety curtain.

Weems is well aware of representations or codes of desire, from the arrays of fresh peonies and pink roses to the oval-shaped frames with crown and tiara, which mirror the mirror, to the marble busts by artist Kehinde Wiley that recreate historic works from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in miniature. Metaphors on history, linkages, and connections abound through the use of a Bamana Ci Wara headdress from Mali, which honors prosperity and success of people who cultivated the land for harvest. A seated figure carved in ebony from Nigeria rests on the mantel of the ornate fireplace. Weems signals opulence through the use of crystal, silver, gold trimmings on pillows, upholstered chairs, and decorated marble walls. Beauty and grace are denoted in this image by the appearance of a ‘stuffed’ white swan. In framing this interplay between history and metaphor, Weems considers the narrative of the ballet Swan Lake as it explores notions of elegance, translated in this image through style and lavishness. Weems appreciates the power of architectural and interior spaces, and here, the viewer is invited to enter into a space of power.

Weems is cognizant of what it means to create an environmental portrait that offers us room for dreaming, of new identities and re-envisioned potential, the license to both preserve and remake the world. Thinking of the large globe on the table, there is also the idea of control/mapping new spaces to reimagine place. Weems conjures the imaginary of both viewer and Queen B by visualizing pleasure and progress, desire and possibility, through jewelry, a designer sweat suit, and a swept-up hairstyle that accentuates her beauty. The formal table with its lavish meal of succulent fruits, cheeses, berries, and loaves of bread placed on colorful tablecloths provides the structure of this staged scene, which disrupts a history of denying black beauty.

Carrie Mae Weems’s image is infused with the nostalgia and romanticism of classical art, a history of culture, race, and gender as told through iconic references to global conquest and engagement. Weems challenges both historic and contemporary visual narratives that privilege others by highlighting black class and style in the symbolic context of the opera house. In focusing our gaze on this depiction of black wealth and black beauty, Weems establishes a presence and place for black women throughout the world and throughout history. The richness and complexity of this evocative photograph conveys a body politic that intersects with popular culture and aesthetics. In the ‘Safety Curtain’ series, theater, fashion, and art are restaged to invoke new histories and reimagine present-day narratives. In Weems’s glamorous and idealized portrait, the black female body occupies a prominent place in art history as the sitter does in music. The artist has constructed and made visible a complex history of beauty in this ideal setting.

(Deborah Willis)

The title ‘Where I enter...’ refers to the publication of Paula J. Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, 1984., 1984.