Carrie Mae Weems' GRACE NOTES to Make D.C. Debut at the Kennedy Center

By: Oct. 04, 2017
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MacArthur Award-winning artist Carrie Mae Weems presents the D.C. premiere of Grace Notes: Reflections for Now on Friday, October 20 at 8 p.m. in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

Weems conceived Grace Notes-her first evening-length performance work-in the wake of the 2015 mass shooting that killed nine members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Grace Notes combines performance, music, song, video, dance, and spoken word in a moving, provocative exploration of the tenacity of grace among black Americans, and of grace's overarching role in the pursuit of true democracy.

Tickets are available now at 202.467.4600 and The Kennedy Center is located at 2700 F Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20566.

Created, written, directed and narrated by Weems, with Tanya Selvaratnam as Associate Director, Grace Notes features original music by composers James Newton, Craig Harris, Edward Ruchalski, and Nona Hendryx; set design by Matt Saunders, lighting design by Jonathan Spencer; costume design by Abby Lutz; video art by Weems, James Wang and Yao Xu; and dramaturgical work by Kyle Bass. The cast includes Craig Harris as music director and on trombone; singers Nona Hendryx, Alicia Hall Moran, Imani Uzuri, and Eisa Davis; poets Carl Hancock Rux and Aja Monet; dancer Francesca Harper; musicians Yayoi Ikawa (piano), Calvin Jones (bass), and Curtis Nowosad (drums); and The Kappa Psi Chapter Hop Team of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. with Step Master Donnel Jones.

Carrie Mae Weems has, across a 30-year artistic career, asserted herself as "a superb image maker and a moral force" (New York Times), driven largely by a focus on American politics' neglect and brutalism towards select populations, along the lines of race, class, and gender-and in the vigor and grace of those populations' everyday persistence. The quotidian force of her 1990 Kitchen Table Series was a casual revolution in representation via a simple reclamation of the lens-and an adjustment to how it might normally capture the lives of female, black subjects. In her conceptual 2016 multimedia series, Scenes & Take, the continued relevance of that early work of hers was reinforced: this series addressed the spaces that have recently been opened for black women in the mainstream production of image and culture-and the spaces where they are still overlooked.Weems may be best known for her photography and video, but her collective body of work reveals an artist willing to shift mediums to serve her conceptual and artistic goals. In 2014, Weems become the first African American artist to receive a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim; she brought together photography, fabrics, video art, digital imagery, and installation.

Now, Grace Notes further demonstrates Weems as an artist unburdened by any given form, fusing her visual arts aesthetics with music and performance in a play-length contemplation of grace as it applies to the black American condition. Regardless of medium, her own body, and the stories it tells, has often played a key role in her artwork, and Grace Notes is no exception. She begins the piece, center-stage, with a typewriter-poised to tell a story of violence, and of persistent grace in the face of it. The way she now uses her body-and calls on her collaborators to do so-in performance, she explains, "isn't really terribly different" from photography. "It's a different process, but the same ideas. How do you push against power-emotionally, psychically, and with your very body? It's about the destruction of lives, and how one, even in the face of that violence, maintains the core of one's dignity."

The original idea for this project was to create a "gift," of sorts, for President Barack Obama-a collection of small photographs, poems, and paintings, all in boxes. Weems explains, "I dreamt that I was talking to my students about how they could respond to the political moment in which we found ourselves. I rolled out of bed and wrote to 25 or 30 artists saying, 'I really think we have to do something to thank the first African American president of the United States for his service to the nation.'" When Obama took office, the rate of death threats against the U.S. President increased by 400 percent. The numbers spoke to the absurdity of any notion that Obama's election meant this country was "post-racial." As the project idea incubated between Weems and the artists she had contacted, devastating acts of racialized violence continued, one after the next, to highlight the tenacity of the country's oppressive systems. The Spoleto Festival contacted Weems, and suddenly the idea of a collection of individual works in boxes by different artists morphed into one giant performance collaboration between them.

By that point, a white supremacist terrorist had entered the historic black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC during a Bible study, had killed nine people, and President Barack Obama had sung "Amazing Grace" as a eulogy for victim Reverend Clementa Pinckney, and the eight other black people killed while worshipping. "Grace" as a concept would become the core of Weems' new work. The instance of the first black President singing, in response to an act of atrocious anti-black violence, was itself awash in tragically layered symbolism and contradiction: the empowering progress-orientation of Obama-as-symbol juxtaposed against Obama-as-human, mourning the country's violent proof of its own rampant white supremacy and injustice. This heavy, sung moment was also an exemplar of grace, and the song's own history of connection to the black American community demonstrates uplift through hardship-the pursuit of grace through the toxicity of the given environment. Says the artist, "'Amazing Grace' bas never been my favorite song. But there was something very powerful about [Obama's] presence of mind to do that at that moment. And that there were no words. There's no intellectualizing that could do that. But there was a song. He himself recognized it was beyond words-it needed another kind of emotion to anchor this thing."

On a sparse set, Weems and her collaborators-musicians, performers, poets-take audiences on a lyricized tour of a new rendering of history, all represented through evocative imagery and movement, as varied texts link the gestural performance to recognizable, insidious events. These words, evoking the Charleston massacre, the numerous killings of black men by the police, and various other atrocities, are often spoken by members of a Greek-style chorus, and incidentally, the process led Weems to realize the project's reflection of one of earliest and most canonized narratives of rebellion. "This piece is very much like Antigone, isn't it?" says Weems in an ART21 exclusive video on the project. "There are only, like, 10 stories in the world we keep coming back to. This is the story of a woman, of a community, that is trying to figure out how to bury her brothers. And they're denying her the right to do that-because they're denying that it's even happened, or that it warrants our attention. And she's saying, 'I'm going to bury him, I'm going to bury him right.'"

Weems explains her understanding of the concept of "grace" firsthand in an interview with Vice: "Grace and faith are evidence of things unseen. Something extraordinary and remarkable about who we are as human subjects and what we struggle toward. The thing that I find so remarkable is how black people have historically conducted themselves in the embrace of not only their humanity but their extraordinary gift to extend their humanity-even to the perpetrators of violence and people who have acted consistently against them. And I just think that's an amazing and remarkable thing." With this project, the aim is not to "beat people" with history and facts, but rather, she says, "to bring the audience in, as close to the bone as possible-to me and to themselves. I don't believe we ever use the word 'black.' I just have to show that. I don't have to talk about Black Lives Matter. We're doing Black Lives Matter."

Produced by THE OFFICE performing arts + film, Grace Notes was commissioned by the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina, where it made its world premiere in June 2016. This engagement is part of JFKC: A Centennial Celebration of John F. Kennedy, the Kennedy Center's yearlong programming initiative marking the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's birth and legacy, inspired by five ideals frequently attributed to America's 35th President: Courage, Freedom, Justice, Service, and Gratitude.

Considered one of the most influential contemporary American artists, Carrie Mae Weems has investigated family relationships, cultural identity, sexism, class, political systems, and the consequences of power. Determined as ever to enter the picture-both literally and metaphorically-Weems has sustained an on-going dialogue within contemporary discourse for over thirty years. During this time, Carrie Mae Weems has developed a complex body of art employing photographs, text, fabric, audio, digital images, installation, and video. In a New York Times review of her retrospective, Holland Cotter wrote, "Ms. Weems is what she has always been, a superb image maker and a moral force, focused and irrepressible."

Weems has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions at major national and international museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Frist Center for Visual Art, Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo in Seville, Spain. Weems has received numerous awards, grants, and fellowships, including the prestigious Prix de Roma, National Endowment of the Arts, Alpert, Anonymous was a Woman, and Tiffany Awards. In 2012, Weems was presented with one of the first US Department of State's Medals of Arts in recognition for her commitment to the State Department's Art in Embassies program.

In 2017 Ebony Magazine named Weems one of the most influential woman of the century andin 2013 she received the MacArthur grant as well as the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award. She has also received the BET Honors Visual Artist award, the Lucie Award for Fine Art photography, was one of four artists honored at the Guggenheim's 2014 International Gala, a recipient of the ICP Spotlights Award from the International Center of Photography, The WEB Dubois Award from Harvard University, as well as Honorary Degrees from: California College of the Arts, Colgate University, Bowdoin College, the School of Visual Arts and Syracuse University.

Her work is represented in public and private collections around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Museum of Modern Art, NY; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and Tate Modern, London. Weems has been represented by Jack Shainman Gallery since 2008, and is currently Artist in Residence at the Park Avenue Armory. She lives in Syracuse, New York, with her husband Jeffrey Hoone, who is Executive Director of Light Work.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, overlooking the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., is America's living memorial to President John F. Kennedy. Under the guidance of Chairman David M. Rubenstein, and President Deborah F. Rutter, the nine theaters and stages of the nation's busiest performing arts facility attract more than 3 million visitors a year to enjoy more than 2,000 performances, while Center-related touring productions, television, and radio broadcasts reach more than 40 million around the world. To further serve as the nation's performing arts center, the Center announced in 2013 a significant expansion project to be constructed south of the existing facility. The Kennedy Center Expansion is intended to be a place where visitors can more actively engage with artists, while also creating new and much-needed rehearsal, education, and flexible indoor and outdoor event and performance spaces. The education programs of the Kennedy Center, including those of its affiliate VSA, the international organization on arts and disability, have become models for communities across the country and have unlocked the door to learning for millions of young people. The Center and its affiliates stage more than 400 free performances of music, dance, and theater by artists from throughout the world each year on the Center's main stages, and every evening at 6 p.m. on the Millennium Stage. To learn more about the Kennedy Center, visit