P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York, New York
Purchased by Akron Art Museum, 1996
2017: "Family" 2/25/17 - 8/20/17, Bidwell Gallery, Akron Art Museum.
2015: "Staged" 5/2/15 - 9/27/15, Bidwell Gallery, Akron Art Museum
2007: "Prized Images: The Knight Purchase Award for Photographic Media 1991-2006" 7/17/07 - 10/14/07, Akron Art Museum
1997 - 1998: "75th Anniversary Celebration of the Collection" 9/25/97 - 2/1/98, Akron Art Museum
1996: "Faith, Face, and Form: Works in the Collection by African-Americans" 3/23/96 - 9/11/96, Akron Art Museum
Carrie Mae Weems
Untitled (Woman with friends) from the Kitchen Table Series, 1990
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
Until the Kitchen Table Series, the photography of Carrie Mae Weems focused on her life as an African American. Raised during the Civil Rights era, Weems began photographing in her late twenties. Her early work sought to balance generations of white photographers' depictions of African Americans with documentary images conveying how blacks view and relate to each other. At twenty-seven, Weems entered art school at the California Institute of Arts, receiving a B.F.A. in 1981 and an M.F.A. from the University of California, San Diego, in 1984. During graduate school, she shifted to a conceptually based approach to photography. Instead of recording reality, she began to use staged images combined with text to comment on societal and political aspects of racism.
By 1990 Weems had become interested in addressing the issue of gender.1 In the Kitchen Table Series, she set out to convey the insider's view of a woman's life through stories of her relationship with her lover and with their child. Like the Fallen Angel by Duane Michals (see pp. 160–61), Weems's series combines images with words and has a cinematic feel as it telescopes a complex narrative into twenty photographs and thirteen text panels. And like her contemporary Cindy Sherman (see pp. 216–17), Weems not only writes and directs but also stars in her drama.
The story is that of a man and woman who fall in love and have a child. When they break up, the woman seeks consolation from friends and family. Her relationship with her daughter is also explored. The story ends not with a Hollywood-style reconciliation but with the woman now alone. There are fourteen scenes, some consisting of more than one photograph; all are set at a simple wooden table. Over the table hangs a lamp, which—depending on the mood of the scene—suggests interrogation or enlightenment. The camera viewpoint places the audience in the same room as the protagonist, directly across the table from the central action. Text panels, written in the third person, are rarely synchronized with the pictures. Instead, they complement the photographs by supplying internal dialogues for the characters.
Although designed as part of a larger ensemble, the photographic works in the Kitchen Table Series also can stand alone. The Akron Art Museum acquired one of three triptychs in the series and also owns five other works by Weems from different series. In this triptych the woman is being comforted by her friends, one of whom is black and the other white. In the first panel, they reach out to touch and solace her as she appears to weep silently. In the middle panel, the woman has regained her composure and they all sit solemnly around a table set with full glasses, an ashtray, and (perhaps hinting at discussions of revenge) a knife. In the final panel, the knife remains on the table but humor has lightened the mood, suggesting that eventually there will be an end to the protagonist's grieving. The support of other women has helped her to survive and begin to heal.
The fact that the main characters—the woman, the man, and the child—are black is not incidental to the narrative, but it is not the central focus. "Yes, the individuals are black, but the issues raised are about sexuality in general, the politics of desire—intimacy and domination."2 "The power of the work comes out of the fact that it's not . . . about me. It's about us."3
- Barbara Tannenbaum, 2001
1. In hooks, 84–85, Weems says that the Kitchen Table Series was in part a reaction to an essay by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, which drew the attention of the art world in the late 1970s and 1980s. Mulvey suggested that most previous images of women, even those made by females, were created for "the male gaze" and based on men's expectations and experiences. See Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema," Screen 16 (autumn 1975): 6–18; reprinted in Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 361–73.
2. Ibid., 78.
3. Quoted in Susan Benner, "A Conversation with Carrie Mae Weems," Artweek 23 (May 7, 1992): 5.
Carrie Mae Weems: Recent Work, 1992–1998. With essays by Thomas Piché Jr. and Thelma Golden. New York: George Braziler in association with Everson Museum of Art, 1998.
Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston. Carrie Mae Weems: The Kitchen Table Series. Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 1996.
hooks, bell. "Talking Art with Carrie Mae Weems." In Art on My Mind: Visual Politics. New York: New Press, 1995.
Kirsh, Andrea, and Susan Fisher Sterling. Carrie Mae Weems. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1993.