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  • Ashley Anderson

Unpacking Things: The Kitchen Table Series

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

"Art" is a big word. Try to encapsulate all of it's meaning/purpose in a sentence and you, undoubtedly, will exclude some part of the craft. It won't be the whole story, or everyone's experience. It is a collection of personal and universal truths. I'm daring to point out what I think one of art's big truths is; our craft brings our critical thinking process out of our mind and into the physical world. Not sure what I'm talking about? Well, I'll give you one fantastic example - Carrie Mae Weems' The Kitchen Table Series.

Carrie Mae Weems (b.1953) has a broad ranging repertoire of artistic pieces. Her works range from installations to films to photography books. Her way of seeing the world has been on of the most influential views in recent history. Weems is a master of pairing just the right amount of plaintive text with pictures that keep drawing you in for more. It's her desire to "unpack" life's suitacases "in a certain kind of way" that fine tunes her photographs into impactful pieces.

A monther and daughter sit at the end of a table. The mother is combing her adult daughter's hair while the daughter ashes a cigarette. This black and white photo is from Carrie Mae Weem's 1990 piece The Kitchen Table Series.
Untitled. Kitchen Table Series ©Carrie Mae Weems

The Kitchen Table Series is one of Weem's most seminal works. On the surface the concept is simple - a woman and her role in the various scenes that take place at the kitchen table. However, you take one look at that butcher block table with its vertical lines pulling you to the other end of the scene, and you begin to traverse the subtleties of the work. In one frame we see a woman combing Weem's hair. With a drawn face she ashes her cigarette while the other woman, whoever she is, pulls through the tangles. Despite the tired look on her face, I feel like she is thankful for the caring gesture.

That frame reminds me of a mother and daughter. After a hard day and maybe a late night crying session, doing simple tasks like combing your hair takes too much energy. So the mother, an omniscient pillar of support, takes up the brush and tackles the minute task that seems so insurmountable in the moment. It's a moment of unconditional love. A moment that, once the bad day or week passes by, the daughter will hold dear in her heart.

That's what the photo reminds me of. It might bring something else to you. Like a photographic mad-lib, the scenes are familiar to all of this, all we need to fill in the blanks with the names and places. Weems talks about how in the years since she initially came out with the project that it has become everyone's. It no longer belongs to her but to it's audience. Each picture is relatable. To further drive this home, each image is captioned "Untitled," but then she adds in parentheses something simple about the picture, such as (Woman with phone.) You get to name the photograph whatever you want.

If I were only able to choose one word to describe this project, I would use "feminine." Weems tells the story about a woman in a very womanly way. Unafraid of and familiar with the range of emotions a person can feel. Even when there is a man in the picture, it is clear that Weems and all her thoughts is the main character. Two of my favorite pieces in the project appear to be taken one right after the other.

A woman stands behind a man as he reads a newspaper at the kitchen table. A piece from Carrie Mae Weems' 1990 project The Kitchen Table Series
Untitled. The Kitchen Table Series © Carrie Mae Weems

In the first we see her standing behind him in a robe, shrouded in shadow, while he reads a paper at the table. Even though you can't see her face clearly, you can feel the tension. I just know that she is doing that very womanly thing of turning over what you want to say in your head a million times over before you say it. You want to say it in the most effective way possible. It would be best if the other person could just know what you are thinking, that way nothing could be misconstrued. She is a pillar of energy and she is sending messages at the back of his head while he reads the paper, ignorant of her signals.

In an attempt to bring her cues more to his attention, she sits at the table in the next frame. Jaw set and cigarette lit, with fair amount of flair, no doubt. Wanting to seem composed and rational (because, for some reason emotions are considered as irrational) and confident, her posture is perfect and her head is held high. He is getting the signal now. He rubs the side of his face and looks like he is about to drawn in a breath before setting his paper down and asking her "what's the matter."

A woman sits, straight backed, at a table with a cigarette under her chin. The man at the end of the table is reading a newspaper while rubbing his face. A piece from Carrie Mae Weems' 1990 series The Kitchen Table Series.
Untitled. (Man Reading Newspaper) Kitchen Table Series. © Carrie Mae Weems

This is a moment every woman knows. We have this amazing ability to make our feelings radiate off of us. Weather it is discontent or elation we can make sure the world knows it with the power of body language. There are so many moments like this throughout Kitchen Table that encapsulate the womanly experience. Each frame may not be everyone's experience, but the project as a whole is familiar to women everywhere. Additionally, I think the project gives men a glimpse into the mind of a woman, something, I'm told, is a deep well of mystery to men.

“I had been really thinking a lot about what it meant to, what it meant to sort of develop your own voice… It started in a curious way as a kind of response to my own sort of sense of what needed to happen, what needed to be, and what would not be simply a voice for African American women but what would be a voice more generally for women.” — Carrie Mae Weems

If you have never heard Weems speak, you are missing out. She has one of the most enrapturing voices I have ever listened to and she articulates so that anything she says sounds like poetry. As companions to the images Weems wrote a series of text panels to got along with the images. Each piece does not necessarily correspond to a specific picture or vice versa. And the text was sort of an afterthought to the project. When she is asked about this she always imparts this novel thought of letting the work tell you what it needs, where it wants to go.

As far as what kind of suitcase Kitchen Table Series unpacks, I imagine a Mary Poppins, magical bag. A bottomless one with endless lessons. Weather it teaches us about the many facets of femininity or gives us a reminder to thank our moms for their constant support, we can always reach into this suitcase and see something new. Carrie Mae Weems developed a timeless piece that will take shape into whatever we need to see and learn at that time.

Listen to Carrie Mae Weems talk in the most enrapturing way about The Kitchen Table Series here.

By Ashley Anderson



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