The View from the Head of the Table
by Bennie Flores Ansell
Judy Chicago's unveiling of The Dinner Party in 1979 was a turning point in art made by women. Reflecting on this piece, the artist concluded that "the general lack of knowledge of our heritage as women was pivotal to our oppression." Chicago's statement brought to mind a line of the text in "The Kitchen Table Series." Carrie Mae Weems writes, "I can tell you that I sided with men so long I forgot women had a side."
Until recently, women in the world of art possessed a side or a history of their own that remained on a personal level and was not available for mass consumption. Some believe Chicago's work turned the tables on this code of silence and made women aware of a history, some "moss under our feet," ground to stand on and grow. Since 1979 an increasing amount of art by women dealing with overtly feminine issues has been exhibited. Weems is an artist in this tradition who also brings an African American perspective to her image making—something the main doctrines of feminism often overlook. The often muted voices of African American feminism today emerge from "a long tradition of structural 'silence' of women of color within the sphere of the production of knowledge worldwide."1
The status of black women is thwarted for the issues are left silent and unaddressed by mainstream and radical feminists. As Michele Wallace writes about the silencing of the true African American feminist voice, "It is mass media that promises to offer the main attraction, that always seems to determine our image, our absence of critical voice: as in a silent movie, we are always pictures without words, or music without lyrics."2 In answer to this ventriloquist's act Weems writesaccompanying text for some of her images. In the bell hooks tradition Weems "talks back" with her images and text and breaks this code of silence impeding fact or history of black women. This body of work gives African American women a voice and an account of their history which has long been held under the table.
The black-and-white narrative photographs in series depict the complexities within the relationships of the main character, played by Weems, with her man, friends, child and most importantly self. All of these interactions take place around a rectangular wooden table where the viewer of the photo sits at the head of the table and the interactions occur at the opposite end. Hanging above the table is a light fixture that leaves the bulb and all of its emanating light exposed giving theimages a musty feel of a pool room where a high stakes game may soon take place. However, the showdown never takes place within these photographs leaving the tensions unresolved and laying on the table.
The most successful of the fourteen pieces in the exhibition are the three triptychs, favorite format of Weems, which added another layer of narrative to the works. One piece that stands out is Wonderful things happen in threes. It shows the tension of the main character and her daughter. In the first image the daughter appears defiant as she looks out of the darkness at her mother reading what seems to be a book of great importance. The next image shows the two leaning on the table in a staring at each other. The final image shows the two sitting at the table, Weems(or the viewer) at the head and her daughter at the viewer's right side. Weems is reading the "great book" and taking notes while her daughter sits with a note pad drawing or waiting. What is apparent in these pieces is equally as important as what takes place when the camera is not focused. The accompanying text reads: "Oh yeah, she loved the kid, she was responsible, but took no deep pleasure in motherhood, it caused deflection from her own immediate desires, which pissed her off. Ha. A woman's duty! Ha! A punishment for Eve's sin is more like it."
Her blunt account.of motherhood is one instance where Weems shows the complexities of this character whose love of her child is a "duty" that takes away from her individuality.
Throughout the series it is a constant struggle for the main character to do what is expected of her as an African American woman within the context of others and her fight to have a voice and mind of her own. Weems takes the bold step in the questioning and rewriting of the most sacred of women's blessings, childrearing—Ha!
The use of text is necessary for this body of work, for through her art Weems fabricates a new reality within the AfricanAmerican female voice. The "repetition" of image and text that relates to the photographs stabilize meanings, confirm and duplicate her subject positions. She invites the viewer to re-learn and rethink an African American female's experience:"...like momma said there'd be days like this, like her man didn't love her, like she needed a little tenderness. Like maybeget herself a white man, see what he'd do."
Weems again writes the profane, and dares to test the will of her man and her experience, as if to take control of her situation, one which her momma would have easily accepted without question.
Weems' photographs and text revise feminist history and call into question Laura Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," asking
"Where does the African American female fit in this picture?" Does her double sense of otherness render her invisible, without mention? Mulvey's essay, published in 1975, links the pleasures of film and, by extension, much of modern art, to a repressive social structure. Mulvey writes,"In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female."3Weems masterfully shows the active working with the passive in that she embodies both the active and passive roles. She is both the creator and the created in these images and has control over how the character is represented and to an extent, how she is viewed. Her main character in these images embodies vulnerability and strength, with her friends she can let her guard down and cry, with her husband and child she must hold her own for her own self respect and sanity. She creates a palimpsest, erasing the old history and leaving a place for the African American feminist voice to be rewritten and heard as history and truth.
This palimpsest is replaced by text that accompanies most of the images. Weems claims that the text is not there to explain the images but to act as a companion narrative to the theme. Yet, it is difficult to separate the two forms of expression for their side-by-side presentation couples them. At best, the text will expand the image. Such is the case with the image of Weems and daughter with friends playing cards. "...The kid had seen her parents loving and fighting and had started playing house herself. She felt like HOT spelled more than hot, like she was little Sally Walker, and not Mary with bleating sheep, like she wanted to wipe her
weeping eyes,... like Mother May…It was too real to be a game, like step on a crack break your momma's back could be a plan, like red light green light was the song to the key of life…..Weems eloquently uses childhood rhymes and games and plays the words together with the loss of innocence of the daughter. In excerpt form the text flows with a hypnotic rhythm and provides the viewer with more than the image allows.
Although the text is fascinating for the viewer who takes the time to read it, the photographs gain universal meaning without the third person voice and allow the viewer to apply it directly to their own framework. These images alone have the power to cross over racial boundaries where they can provide meaning to all women of color. One such image shows Weems' character and her male companion eating a lobster dinner. In the background a caged bird lurks in the shadows while the two sit at the table where "the man" sucks the remaining meat from his lobster. Weems' lobster remains untouched with the rubber bands still on its claws. Her glass of wine is full. His almost empty glass sits next to two, supposedly empty, cans of beer. There is a scattered deck of cards in the foreground with the three of hearts singled out. As the male character eats his lobster with both hands Weems places her right hand lovingly on his head and says shhh... The intense feelings and symbols portrayed in this tender image are more than words can tell. Weems' text is vital to thispiece yet the photographs at the same time are powerful enough to stand on their own and create a multitude of meanings to the viewers without the restrictive frame of the text.
Accompanying "The Kitchen Table Series" and following table theme,were Weems' commemorative plates placed on a plain black tablecloth. These white, gold trimmed Lenox plates are once again reminiscent of the place settings in Chicago's "The Dinner Party" that honor females. In Weems' case she is honoring her "brothers and sisters." Weems makes the text on these plates hard hitting. Such is the case of the plate "for any black male who makes IT TO THE AGE OF 21." This leaves one to contemplate the oppressive conditions for most African American males in the inner-city. Weems also honors other African Americans such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Thurgood Marshall. Another plate reads"COMMEMORATING ADAM CLAYTON POWELL, JR. FOR DEFYING EVERY EXPECTATION OF WHAT A BLACK MAN SHOULD BE AND WASN'T."
This plate rings through in the truest voice. With the exchange of few words Carrie Mae Weems' work as an artist defies every expectation of what an African American female should be and wasn't—silent. Weems excuses herself from the "Dinner Table" and tells her own story, which is fact and history. •
Bennie Flores Ansell is an artist living in Houston.
1. Michelle Wallace, "Negative Images: Towards a Black Feminist Cultural Criticism," Cultural Studies, 1992, p. 655.
2. Ibid, p. 243.
3. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Art in Theory, (Cambridge.UK, 1992),p. 967.