The artist Carrie Mae
was speaking with a friend earlier this year about how to get Covid-19 prevention messages out to communities of color who were being affected by the pandemic at a high rate.
That conversation ultimately led to a public art and awareness campaign, called RESIST COVID/TAKE 6!, that Weems created while the artist-in-residence at Syracuse University.
The project, which features compelling photographs by Weems accompanied by clear public health messaging about the virus, was launched in April in Syracuse (where the mayor declared July 9 “
Carrie Mae Weems
Day”), and has since spread to at least 10 cities across the U.S.
The fact that people of color were bearing the brunt of the disease in the U.S. “affords the nation an unprecedented opportunity to address the impact of social and economic inequality in real time,” Weems said in a press statement. “Denial does not solve a problem.”
She added that, “I thought, ‘How can I use my art and my voice as a way of underscoring what’s possible and bring the general public into a conversation, into heightened awareness of this problem to better the community in which I live?’”
Carrie Mae Weems RESIST COVID TAKE6!, 2020
Carrie Mae Weems and Social Studies 101
Photographs in the campaign feature upbeat images, including one of Weems’ mother laughing, splashed across with big red, all-cap letters saying, “Life is Beautiful!!,” and accompanied by text that says, “Stay Safe, If Possible Stay Home, Wash Your Hands, Cover Your Face.” Take 6! refers to the recommendation to keep a social distance of six feet to prevent spread of the virus.
“What I really like about a lot of her images is they are so inviting,” says Laurie Ann
, senior curator at the Dallas Contemporary. “If you step into her world for a moment, she’s successful at drawing viewers in a way that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before.”
In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Weems’ images and messaging began appearing on a handful of billboards in mid-August. Then in early September, a consortium of museums and cultural partners, led by Dallas Contemporary, began distributing 8,500 reusable cloth masks and posters throughout both cities. With a donation from
Clear Channel Outdoor,
they now have 38 billboards displaying messages, in addition to bus wraps, kiosks, and signs at rapid transit stations provided by the city of Dallas.
“The campaign is direct, easy to read when you’re driving by in a car,” Farrell says. “The sense of offering hope and inspiration is key.”
The curator first learned of the campaign from Weems as she was catching up with the artist over the summer. They’ve known one another since 2008, meeting at the annual National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, when Farrell was executive director of exhibitions at SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. After that, Farrell invited Weems to teach a multi-disciplinary course at SCAD, where students worked with the artist to create a film in partnership with the festival.
“Watching her as an artist—how she was talking to the students, and conceptualizing with the students—she’s so steeped in history, music, literature, all of these things come to play in her work,” Farrell says.
That impression of having her finger on the pulse of history resonates in Weems’ current project, Farrell adds. “She’s leveraging all of her 2020 vision to try to get messaging out there that’s easy to understand.”
To amplify the campaign, Farrell called on her friend, André Leon Talley, former American editor-at-large at Vogue magazine, whose book “The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir” was published in May, to do a public conversation on public health and racial equity with Weems this Saturday, Oct. 3, at 5 p.m. CDT.
“I feel that both of them have this platform, this highly visible platform from which they can help others,” Farrell says.
The RESIST COVID campaign also evolves as Weems takes it to different cities. In Dallas-Fort Worth, the consortium worked with the artist to translate the materials into Spanish to reach Latinx communities in the area who were experiencing some of the highest numbers of Covid-19 infections.
The consortium of museums, which includes the African American Museum of Dallas, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Nasher Sculpture Center, among others, determined where the hotspots were by analyzing ZIP Codes of the highest infection rates. The group tapped community partners, including food banks and half-way houses, to learn what kind of resources were needed. According to a press statement, this is a multi-phase initiative that will continue to roll out through December, and perhaps beyond, should the group secure more financing.
In addition to the billboards and signs, more than 50 community partners across Dallas-Fort Worth have distributed printed postcards, grocery bags, and buttons with information from the campaign.
“We’ve all learned a lot from each other,” Farrell says. “It’s provided an amazing sense of community at a time when everybody feels so isolated.”