Art of the Week: At The Kitchen Table with Carrie Mae Weems

A man and a woman sit at a wooden table. He reads the paper. She sits, smoking a cigarette and looking downward at her drink. The posture conveys anger and tension, to which the man is oblivious. Or maybe he is not oblivious, but simply refuses to engage. And maybe she is simply exhausted.

The relationship between men and women, as well between women and children, and women and their friends, are the essence of Carrie Mae Weems’ “Kitchen Table” photographs. Comprising 20 photos, the series is a meditation on one African-American woman’s life as revealed in the intimacy of her kitchen.

As photos often do, each of the Kitchen Table images suggests a story, or several possible stories. While Weems wrote a narrative connecting the images, all you need to do is view the entire set of images to experience their full power. She has said that she hadn’t planned on adding a narrative—a cross between a “bildungsroman and a beat poem”—but it just came to her “effortlessly.”

Weems herself is the woman featured in each image—but these aren’t self-portraits. Instead, she is a stand-in for a character: “I never think of it as being about me. Rather, the character helps to reveal something that is more complicated about the lives of women.”

American artist Weems, 62, created the photographs during 1989-90, and their exhibition put her on the art world map. In the years since then, she  has received a MacArthur “genius” grant and the U.S. Dept. of State’s Medal of Arts. Her work has been exhibited widely, and the “Kitchen Table” series itself has been circulated among the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among other venues.

Photography is what Weems is known for, but it is not her only medium. She also works with text, fabric, audio, digital images, Her award-winning photographs, films, and videos have been displayed in over 50 exhibitions in the United States and abroad and focus on serious issues that face African Americans today, such as racism, sexism, politics, and personal identity.


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