Kitchen Table Series
Decades ago in Northampton, Massachusetts, Carrie Mae Weems began devoting a part of every single day to photographing herself at her kitchen table. Obsessive in telling the story of the woman she was playing—whom we follow through the course of relationships with her lover, her friends, and her daughter—Weems knew the series would be important to her. She didn’t realize, though, that it would take on historical significance, too, paving the way for a generation of women artists concerned with their own representation, as well as in conversations of race and relationships to boot. Since then, Weems has landed a MacArthur “genius grant” and around 50 solo shows, including the Guggenheim’s first retrospective of an African-American woman. And her Kitchen Table Series has been equally enduring, making its way into plenty of books and museums over the years. It’s now finally getting a stand-alone copy, out at the end of April from Damiani. Here, Weems reflects on why it’s as relevant as ever.
Kitchen Table Series
At night she would return to her studio to work on her own photographs that told a different story. She centered herself at the end of a kitchen table and composed vignettes about the life cycle of a romance, the camaraderie among female friends, the demands of motherhood and finally her solitude, all unfolding at the table under a harsh, expository overhanging light. These photographs in “Kitchen Table Series,” completed in 1990, are accompanied by 14 panels recounting the path of a 38-year-old woman with a “bodacious manner, varied talents, hard laughter, multiple opinions,” as a panel says, who resists classification and embraces complexity.
Kitchen Table Series
Carrie Mae Weems’s landmark Kitchen Table Series opens with a photograph of a woman caught between her reflection and a faceless phantom of a man. The final chapter of that unfolding story, the denouement after a violent off-camera climax, begins with a woman directly addressing the viewer, no longer surrounded by her lover, her friends, or her daughter. Weems’s grand finale, the last word of chapter and verse, is a woman playing solitaire. Having liberated herself from a bad relationship and the social constrictions of motherhood, her protagonist relaxes with a smoke, a glass of wine, and some chocolates—perhaps a valentine from a new suitor? Placed just before this picture, the closing text panel in the series announces, “Presently she was in her solitude.” Though her bird has literally and figuratively flown the coop, the woman seems unconcerned rather than lonely, defeated, or abandoned.
T: The New York Times Style MagazineHilary MossIn book form, Kitchen Table is more intimate… Unlike the experience of meandering through a museum, stepping back to appreciate the images and nearing the text panels to skim them, the pace of exploration is now in a person’s hands. and Matsumoto spread out the series—and essays by the scholars Sarah Lewis and Adrienne Edwards—over 86 pages, supplying ample space to absorb it. Weems remarks, of Kitchen Table in particular, ‘It has clearly touched the lives of a great many people. It touches a chord and speaks to something that’s fairly universal.’ And, something that’s continuously fresh.
In this image from the Kitchen Table Series, Carrie Mae Weems gives viewers the privilege to witness this remarkable, ordinary-extraordinary ritual. Playing that everywoman we all have been at one time or another, the photographer herself sits in a black slip, cigarette just a-dangling, head cocked to the side, seeking solace against the belly of a kitchen beautician. Is it a sister? A mama? An auntie? A lover? Whoever we imagine, this image of blissful domestic intimacy reminds us all of the women who, while scratching that dandruff right on out, offered an ear as a cup for our tears. We couldn’t afford to sit on a therapist’s couch, and—even for those who could—Vanessa down the way could give you a mean Kool-Aid tip and advice on how to give that usher cheating with-a yo’ husband Heyell. The beautician’s chair in that kitchen was a healing throne. Fixing food … fixing hair … fixing poor souls.
In the Kitchen Table Series, Carrie Mae Weems takes these issues on with verve. The second photograph in the sequence depicts the protagonist drinking and playing cards with a man. A bottle of whiskey, a pair of mostly emptied tumblers, a dish of peanuts, some discarded shells, and a cigarette pack: these things constellate into a still life, lit by the glowing bulb above. The peanuts, cigarettes, and whiskey tie the kitchen into a larger economy and its history. As agricultural products grown mainly in the South, they mix into this leisurely moment signs of labor, suffering, and migration. A history of many streets, of rural South and urban North, has seeped into the scene, which recalls, in smoky black and white, earlier meditations on exodus and hope.
Kitchens and streets. You could write a history of the twentieth century through that pairing. If the city street is a place of random encounter, of hustle and protest, the kitchen is a place of intimate habit, of sharing and aroma. Emotional distance is routine on the street, but excruciating in the kitchen. Yet if such a history is worth writing, it is because these two places are by no means discrete. The street presses into the kitchen, stocking shelves and burdening conversations. The kitchen is a delicate sanctuary, vulnerable to the threat of violence, and to the prejudice and fear that abound outside. But the kitchen has a subtle power of its own. It bears an improvisational capacity to bind subjects in shared experience, and to restore and refashion them in the midst of struggle.
In her “Museum Series,” which she started in 2007, she photographs citadels of art like the Louvre, the British Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She appears in front of each august edifice in a long, black dress with her back to the camera, a wistful, solemn presence that suggests both a longing for admission and a testament to exclusion. She has similarly materialized before grand antebellum architecture embedded with the history of slavery in the “Louisiana Project” and on ancient streets in Europe in her 2006 series “Roaming.”
The blues, of course, are about finding the good in the bad, playing through the pain to extract the joy and the lesson within. The scenario presented in this Carrie Mae Weems photograph from the Kitchen Table Series contains all of the tensions and dualities embedded in the blues: His succulent lobster is completely eaten, while hers remains untouched. His glass is almost empty, while hers is full. Eyes closed, they are both lost in the shared moment. As he plays, she sings and touches his face tenderly, cigarette dangling from her free hand. A man and a woman, lost in a beautiful, poetic, and forever enigmatic moment.
Kitchen Table Series, however, is not a story about simple justice served. The teller of this tale is neither saint nor sinner; the moral is not black or white but rich shades of gray. The measured photographic chronicle is countered by the raucous accompanying texts, which describe a far darker narrative echoing with a chorus of voices—those found in vernacular expressions, rhymes, and lyrics—coalescing into that of the imperfect heroine. The last text panel features lines from “Little Girl Blue,” a song immortalized by Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, whose vocal shadings, we can imagine, provide a ghostly sound track for the woman playing solitaire, who is also a lady singing the blues about a man who done her wrong. She’s a little girl blue looking for a blue boy, who can only ever count on raindrops, who tells it like it is.
The painter Mickalene Thomas was inspired to become an artist after seeing “Kitchen Table Series” at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon as a student in the early 1990s. “It was the first time I saw work by an African-American female artist that reflected myself and called upon a familiarity of family dynamics and sex and gender,” Ms. Thomas said. Now 59, Ms. Weems is having her first comprehensive retrospective, which opens on Friday at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville and includes some 225 photographs, videos and installations, from her earliest, never-before-published ’70s documentary photographs influenced by Roy DeCarava and Henri Cartier-Bresson to brand-new pieces referring to works by Marcel Duchamp and Ana Mendieta, among other artists. It will travel to the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, where she grew up and is home to almost 400 members of her close-knit extended family, as well as to the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
In my world, the kitchen table ain’t never been just for eating. Friday night “fish frys” segued into Saturday night hair fryings on the weekly. Till this day, I still have nightmares about the hot comb. I remember Mama would tell me to hold my ear down, and my body would just recoil, bracing for my skin’s possible kiss with a four-hundred-degree iron. The worst was when she told me to duck my head down so she could snatch my “kitchen.” Honey, let me tell you, it is a brave girl who submits the nape of her neck to that fire. Perhaps it is the reason why the delicate hairs that stake claim there have themselves been called “the kitchen,” as they are so often tortured into submission in the space that bears their name.