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Artist Carrie Mae Weems talks ‘Grace Notes,’ patriarchy and punching Nazis

Spoiler alert: She’s cool with it

It’s possible to carry an enormous amount of grace and still endorse punching Nazis. So says artist and photographer Carrie Mae Weems, who is performing her newest production, Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, tonight at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Weems began working on Grace Notes after a white supremacist opened fire at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, killing nine people. The “grace” refers to President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the attack.

I spoke with Weems on Thursday before she headed to the Kennedy Center for a rehearsal of the performance, which uses music, text, spoken word and video to explore the implications of race and violence in America. When I arrived at her narrow rented row house, Weems was on the phone with her assistant trying to solve a last-minute production dilemma. She offered up orange juice, and then we sat at a small bar-height table. Perhaps fittingly, a single blue pendant lamp hung over it, just in case the 2013 MacArthur Award winner was in the mood to revisit her acclaimed Kitchen Table series. Weems offered her thoughts on the 44th and 45th presidents, as well as the pervasiveness of sexual harassment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What made you want to build a show inspired by President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” and the idea of holding on to grace in the face of racist violence?

I’ve been thinking a lot about him, thinking a great deal about his presidency, the meaning of his presidency, the way that he’s been treated as the first black president. Of the ways in which I thought he was a lot of ways maligned and misrepresented and attacked and targeted in the most vicious way.

The terror that accompanied his presidency was really enormous. … I thought that it would be really wonderful to thank him for his service to the nation, to thank him for his extraordinary accomplishment and his courage and his conviction. And his humility in the face of it all. And then, of course, he sang ‘Amazing Grace,’ which was like a shot heard around the world. For a week, two weeks, no matter where you went, no matter what radio station you turned on, whether it was in Berlin or Russia or South America, the United States, everybody had focused on this idea that he had sang this song, and beautifully, and what it called up in them was not unlike what it called up in me.

So in a dream — because I think most of my ideas come when I’m very, very relaxed or in that sort of in-between moment between being awake and asleep, in sort of a twilight zone. … So I was explaining in my dream to a group of students how they might approach making a work about our times and about Obama. It was just sort of laid out in my dream, and I woke up and I rolled over to my computer and I wrote about 30 artists, and I asked them if they would be willing to contribute to a gift box that I wanted to make for the president. They would be musical compositions by great composers and pieces of art and photographs and poetry and essays, and all of it. And I would package it all in a sort of beautiful way and offer it to the presidential library as a gift, as a reflection of what artists were doing during his time and our thanks to him as the first African-American president of the United States.

A number of black artists have blossomed since 2008 because the Obama family’s presence in White House was so inspiring. How has our current climate informed the way you think about things?

It’s sort of like the ‘changing same,’ as Amiri Baraka would say. We’ve always been pressed. The Obamas had to deal with it while they were in the White House running the country. They had to deal with the backlash of white America, conservative America, against their presence. And we’ve had to deal and negotiate that backlash and those feelings of anxiety since. Many of the texts, all of the texts that I wrote remain just as relevant as they were before Trump walked into the White House. It’s really the same sort of historical circumstances. It’s simply more revealed in the most heinous way, and that we would have the president of the United States as the focal point at that animus and anger, I think, is a thing that is really significant about the moment.

Who are you hoping Grace Notes strikes a nerve with?

I don’t imagine any number of conservatives rushing to see this show. I think I always make work for myself, first and foremost, because I’m trying to understand something. Negotiate something. Clarify something. Or just ask myself certain kinds of questions that I need to simply have hanging in the air around me. I may not have the answer. I don’t have the answer to many things. The older I get, the less knowledgeable I become.

As a MacArthur Foundation fellow, you’re a certified genius, though. It’s official.

But I do think that the thing that I care about most is asking the right kinds of questions for our time, and that is what I’m hoping to share with our audience. Just asking the right kinds of questions. So, for instance, what is grace?

So I started working on this piece, I don’t know, maybe two years ago, three years ago. I can’t remember anymore. Spoleto commissioned it after the Charleston shootings. So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to call this piece Grace Notes: Reflections for Now.’ So what is grace? And I didn’t have an answer. I was still up at 7 this morning struggling with this answer. Struggling with the question. And trying to answer it for myself so that I might be able to provide something for the audience. But then I realized that I really needed to ask the audience the question.

That’s been the process. And so I’m hoping that it engages people that are interested in asking themselves reflective questions about where we are, what we’re doing, how we’re doing it. … What kinds of questions do we need to ask about the sort of ongoing systemic violence against black people? How are we culpable? Is there any moment in which we are culpable?

So my coming to terms, then, with this sort of idea about grace is, maybe it’s the way, even though we’re maligned and mistreated, that we offer the best of ourselves and the best of our humanity to others, even to those who wish we were dead. I am still offering my gift of humanity to you because I know how important it is. I know you need it. I know I can share it. I know that I can reveal it, help you see it so that charity and compassion become critical in the acts of living through grace.

I ask myself at a certain point, well, is it a quality? Is it a state of being? Is it an adjective, a noun, a pronoun, an adverb? And then I call my mother. And in the show there’s a recording of my mother talking about grace.

I’m hoping that, yes, that we ask questions of ourselves and of our audience, and that they walk away curious. If they walk away with just some other questions they consider, then I’ve done my job.

There’s so much frustration and so much anger. I mean, we’re having conversations about whether or not it’s ethical to punch Nazis.

It is. (laughs) Let’s just cut to the chase. Yes.

How do you find grace when you’re fed up? I was wondering, geez, what would you have done if instead of me at the door it was Richard Spencer? I don’t know that I have much grace to extend to him.

It’s bigger than you or I. I think it’s the condition that we have endured, and that in the process of that endurance that we’re still whole. Bent but not broken. Holding on to the core of ourselves. And still being willing to offer the breath of humanity to others, because we’re not actually walking around the streets and marching up and down and shooting white m—–f——.

I know that there is something sick about the way in which you have come to understand yourself in relationship to me. That’s a gift, that I say I don’t hate you. I don’t have the energy or the time to do that. I have to hold on to my humanity. I have to hold on to my dignity. Allowing this detritus to rob you of your essence, to rob you of your beauty, that would be the crime.

So I think that grace is much bigger than — it’s not turning the other cheek. It’s really understanding that someone has lost their humanity and you’re trying to offer it back.

After the Harvey Weinstein revelations came out, wave after wave of women — not just celebrities, but all sorts of women — have come forward to say, “I’ve been sexually assaulted or have been sexually harassed.”

I don’t think I know any women that haven’t been. Somebody has touched your a–, tried to f— you or did f— you. Almost every woman that I know. And we took it.

How do we overthrow hundreds of years of patriarchy?

Start with your husband. (laughs) Start with him. I think that this is really kind of a, what do you call it? A salient moment.

But we really have to talk about the sort of sense of silence that women have endured, have placed on themselves, the way in which we’ve muzzled ourselves because we wanted our job, we wanted a man, we wanted the position, we wanted to be with the boys. Whatever it is, we have to talk about that, too, as we talk about the larger issues of the ways in which women have been historically treated.

What’s your source of hope?

You. Us. Even in my dismay, even as I watch the moral fiber of the country collapse under the weight of this very dangerous man that’s in the White House, he’ll only be around for a minute. The arc of history is long, and we have much to do. As people in New Orleans said and other places, honey, we lived through Jim Crow and came through. Right? Couldn’t get on a bus. Couldn’t move around. Couldn’t drink from a water fountain.

In the broad scheme of things, it doesn’t mean a thing. It just represents the worst of what America has to offer. But we’ve always known that that was there anyway, so he’s in one way no surprise. We thought that we had gotten a little further down the road. But I do think of that silly saying, ‘Hope does spring eternal.’ And that I can’t allow this moment to rob me of my humanity. It’s a time to really invest and anchor and be clear about my intentions and what I believe is best for me and the people that I care about and think about and honor. And to figure out ways to do that in the best possible way that allows as many people as possible to participate in that and to look at that and to see that. And I think that, in some way, Grace Notes is that.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is a senior writer covering arts, entertainment and culture for The Undefeated. Christopher Eccleston is her favorite Doctor Who.