Influence & Appropriation: Carrie Mae Weems at the Michigan Theater


Carrie Mae Weems photo from her Kitchen Table Series

Carrie Mae Weems in a photo from her Kitchen Table Series. Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Sometimes we remodel because we’ve been left out.” --Carrie Mae Weems

I guess I would call myself superstitious. At least that’s how I think about it in those moments when I feel like the universe is pushing me in one direction or another.

I went to see Carrie Mae Weems speak on February 14 as a part of the Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series. This was my second time in the Michigan Theater in the space of one week and for someone who sees herself as a person of somewhat nerdily pedestrian interests, I find myself off-kilter when I frequent what I think of as a higher-brow spot. I’m more Netflix than Michigan Theater.

Weems, though, is a name that I have come to know through encountering her work here and there -- and then having an I-have-to-know-more-about-this-artist moment, finding again, I am looking at Weems’ work.

The theater was packed when I arrived. When she took the stage, Weems addressed the audience, the “students and those who feel like lifelong students.” She dug into talking about her process, revealing that she starts her day in her studio listening to Don Pullen and Stevie Wonder. She invited the audience to think about our own media diets. That’s not how she talked about it; she talked more about our influences, about how what we take in impacts the work we produce.

She implored us to pay attention to it.

Then, seduced by her vibe, her oratory skill, her command of the stage, we heard it. The word: appropriation. I snapped to attention quickly enough to hear her deftly link the ideas of influence and appropriation. She made me think about the words that we hear and use every day, reminding me of my belief that one should look up words that one regularly uses to see how close one’s use of the word is to the dictionary definition, or how far it has strayed. 

Google, what’s up?

Influence: the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself.

Appropriate: take (something) for one's own use, typically without the owner's permission.

What does it mean to copy? Weems talked about the stigma attached to the idea of copying in art, that it is frowned upon, that originality is king. But where is that line between influence and copying? Weems pointed out that in the literary world, plagiarism is essentially a high crime. In music, though, she talked about the idea that one’s ability to be seen as the real deal, one’s credibility, is directly attached to one’s knowledge of origins. As I considered these ideas, I became keenly aware of how hushed the audience had become. We were enveloped in a quiet that only comes from a speaker’s ability to command the crowd. 

“How do you take something and make it your own?” --Carrie Mae Weems

Weems plunged us deeper into considering the stew of influence, copying, and appropriation in art, words, and expression through music. She chose the song “Gentle on My Mind” to illustrate the point. She mentioned the versions sung by Glen Campbell, Frank Sinatra, and Aretha Franklin, highlighting the particular qualities of each version. Each song evoked a different feeling. For me, Campbell’s version is the kind song that I could imagine finding myself listening to on a summer road trip. Maybe it’s because he’s talking about wheat fields and if you’re driving anywhere from the Midwest, you’re going to encounter some crops along the way. For me, Sinatra’s version seemed fancier, somehow. Or maybe I just can’t distinguish between “fancy” and not as earnest. Maybe it was the musical arrangement, the clear presence of string instruments that made it feel different. Aretha Franklin’s version put me in the frame of mind that her music often puts me in, most of which probably shouldn’t be published. I’ll just say this: Franklin’s version made me think, “I want to be forever gentle on someone’s mind like that. Precisely like that.”

Weems pushed the idea of making something one’s own further, bringing up Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, describing it as a gift to us. Weems showed a video of Franklin singing Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” I saw possibilities, a demonstration of what it means to take a song and bend it to your own will. 

I considered the implications of that possibility as Weems began to talk about her own work, expressing that her interests aren’t limited to artistic practice, but expand into social issues. As she discussed her own From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, we saw what it looks like when Weems makes takes possession of something and gives birth to something new. The work uses historic representations of black people. She edited these images, using text to tell a story that transforms the images into a piece that changes who is served by the images. The workpiece also addresses questions of who gets to have a voice, who gets to make history, what spaces are people allowed to occupy. 

When do you decide where you belong? What creates a sense of belonging? Who decides what belongs to whom?

I wonder whether, sometimes, it’s the universe making those decisions.

Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at