The Kitchen Table Series, first shown in 1990, brought Carrie Mae Weems to the forefront of the contemporary art lexicon with its unflinching, intentionally crafted depictions of its protagonist’s many social roles: mother, lover, intellectual, African American, woman, and friend. In this series, Weem centers the kitchen as a space straddling the domestic and public sphere and calls into question the social roles associated with the kitchen table. In this piece, I’d like to further examine her evocation of the kitchen, by placing her series into dialogue with other artists who have focused on the kitchen table in their work.

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Carrie Mae Weems
Untitled, from the Kitchen Table Series, 1990-2003
Gelatin silver print, 40″ x 40″
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY

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Norman Rockwell
Freedom from Want, 1942
Oil on canvas
Norman Rockwell Studio Collection/Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust

One of the most recognizable images of the kitchen table from 20th century Western visual culture is Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want. In this portrayal of the kitchen table, three generations of a white American family are gathered around a table with a bountiful selection of food. A depiction of the ideal American family and American abundance. Freedom from Want was created in 1942 as a response to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, an aim to boost patriotism following decades of war and conflict. Opposed to the complexities and variety of characters and relationships surrounding Weems’ table, Rockwell’s painting aims to capture a fixed nuclear family and a symbolic image of cohesive national prosperity. Weems’ work challenges this simplistic portrayal of the individual, the family, and the nation.

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James Karales
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with his daughter, Yolanda, 1962
Vintage gelatin silver print
Image © Courtesy of the Estate of James Karales

Echoing themes of parental relationships, political activism, and racial identity displayed in Weems’ Kitchen Table Series, I am also drawn to this photo titled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with his daughter Yolanda. In this image Dr. King is seated in mid-conversation with his young daughter Yolanda who is grabbing cookies from the kitchen table. The photograph, captured by photographer James Karales, reflects the intimacy found in Weems’ images of the kitchen table. Its candid nature, however, acts in contrast with Weems’ deliberately staged images. Here, the kitchen table serves as a stage for a challenging conversation, as King explains to his daughter why she cannot go to the segregated amusement park in their town. The heartbreaking reality of this scene exemplifies the many dimensions of the kitchen table: a space of nourishment and replenishment, as well of as a space of exhaustion and reckoning.  

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Henri Fantin-Latour, French, 1836 – 1904
Le Coin de Table (Corner of the Table), 19th century
Etching, engraved by Le Rat, 3.75 x 5.25
David Winton Bell Gallery, Gift of Kermit Champa

Finally, I looked for images in the David Winton Bell Gallery collection. I came across an etching engraved by the French artist Henri Fantin-Latour. This engraving is a precursor to the artist’s painting Le Coin de Table, one of four group portraits in a series paying tribute to the artist’s contemporaries. The men in this painting, huddled around the corner of a table, appear to be calm and in harmony with one another. In reality this table was a setting for discourse and disagreement. The diners at this table belong to Le Parnasse, a 19th century French poetical revival movement. Here, the table is a space for various poetical disputes that would occasionally devolve into physical brawls. This piece reminds me of the emotional discussions that occur at the kitchen table, and I am left reflecting on the ways Kitchen Table Series explores varied emotions and feelings in relation to the space the table occupies.

In all of these images, I am struck by the positions each character occupies around their respective kitchen tables–A father, an activist, a family, a woman, a group of colleagues, a child, a lover, a friend, etc. The tables in the works act as loaded symbols for consumption, nourishment, communion, debate, excess, and depletion, depending on who surrounds the tables.  As I think about Carrie Mae Weems’ Kitchen Table Series, I not only think about the way the table functions, but how her character’s positioning gives the table its meaning. Through the images crafted, Weems explores her own multitude of identities and her position in these social roles. When thinking of other scenes surrounding the kitchen table in our visual culture, it becomes apparent that there are many seats at the table that different individuals inhabit. Perhaps the seats at the table are just as loaded in symbolism as the table itself. In my opinion, Weems uses the table to call the viewer to examine their own social roles, the ways they intersect, and the various seats they hold.

Selected works from Carrie Mae Weems’ seminal art series Kitchen Table Series will be on exhibit in the List Art Lobby of the David Winton Bell Gallery from November 11th to December 21st.

– Johanna Obenda
MA Public Humanities ’19

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Before there were museums, there were Wunderkammer, or Wonder Cabinets. The collections they contained were eclectic—valued for exoticism and variety rather than continuity—and contained fragments of material culture juxtaposed with preserved flora and travel souvenirs. Each artifact was both a treasure in and of itself, and a kind of talisman evoking the distinctive culture and history from which it came, as well as the epic adventure of acquiring it.

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Conceptual artist Mark Dion’s 2006 New England Digs triptych is precisely the kind of thing one might find in a Wunderkammer. It is a delicate collection of souvenirs created in memory of an epic undertaking four years prior, which unearthed a bevy of wondrous items and complex local histories through extensive cooperation between the David Winton Bell Gallery, the Fuller Museum of Art, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Gallery, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, RISD, and Brown University. Fittingly, this project culminated in a traveling display of these items encased in an assortment of Wonder Cabinets in a show bearing the same name. Dion has conducted similar digs in a Venetian Canal, along the banks of the Thames River, in the ash-pits around the Queens Museum, and in the former sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art.

In 2001, Dion broke ground on three archeological digs in Providence, RI; New Bedford, MA; and Brockton MA—but these were not ordinary research expeditions. Dion was only interested in sites that were “insignificant and disturbed,” those of no interest or use to archeologists.[1] In Providence, he chose a garbage heap on the edge of the Seekonk River and a site along Narragansett Bay, in New Bedford he chose a burned-down 19th-century waterfront tavern, and in Brockton he chose a dump on the edge of a cemetery. Employing a team of mostly art students, Dion embarked on an elaborate participatory pantomime of the rituals of natural science. In Providence, Brown and RISD students joined Dion in unearthing, cleaning, and categorizing a plethora of items and in the process, flipped the roles of the gallery and larger institution inside out. Instead of showcasing a pristine and illuminated final product, the gallery space was filled with the messier behind-the-scenes process of artists scrubbing and organizing piles of ambiguous artifacts.

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However, despite his pseudo-scientific “play-acting,” Dion is not interested in undermining the professions of the archeologist, taxonomist, biologist, botanist, zoologist, historian, or curator.[2] Rather, it pays homage to the immensity of their work while critiquing their popular simplifications in unrefined institutional narratives. He reminds us of the inherent subjectivity of collection, organization, and interpretation of artifacts, and playfully deconstructs knowledge processes—like archeological excavation—we might otherwise take for granted. Aesthetic and conceptual decisions like this force participants in and viewers of Dion’s artwork to reassess the difference between elements of material culture we are told to value and those we are told to disregard.

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The material culture unearthed in New England Digs yielded three unique yet related assemblages, pointing to regional legacies of economic vitality—New Bedford was once a major whaling hub, Providence was a booming trade center and producer of jewelry, and Brockton was the shoe capital of the world—as well as their decline. But in Dion’s quintessential style, historically significant finds are democratically mingled with refuse and it all looks stunning. “There is a long history of using trash in modern art,” Dion has stated, “but here objects are allowed to exist as what they are or were, without metaphor, noninterpretive, not even archaeological.”[3]

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The New England Digs souvenir prints similarly memorialize these projects without metaphor or interpretation, soberly listing each city below an image of a ceramic shard found there. These prints are what they are but simultaneously refer to the vast history behind them. These simple compositions become the elegant and tender ambassadors to the overall group of unearthed minutia, the communities they belonged to, and Dion’s larger artistic process of uncovering culture and history in “the layer of material culture that separates us from the earth.”[4]

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Check out Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston for a closer look at the New Bedford Cabinet, and the David Winton Bell Gallery collection for more information.

Rica Maestas
Public Human MA ’18

[1] Markonish, Denise, “Insignificant and Disturbed: 3 Digs,” Mark Dion: New England Digs (Brockton, MA: Fuller Museum of Art, 2001), 26.

[2] Markonish, op. cit., 21.

[3] Wilson Lloyd, Ann, “The Drama of Digging in New England’s Trash,” New York Times, Jan 6, 2002.

[4] Markonish, op. cit., 41.

The David Winton Bell Gallery is excited to announce our recent acquisition of three photos by Graciela Iturbide – Mujer Ángel, Procesión, and Prótesis. Widely considered to be one of the most important Mexican photographers working today, Iturbide’s work focuses on female, indigenous, and intersectional identities in Mexico. Best known for her work in Zapotec, Mixtec, and Seri Indian communities, her black and white images of rituals, festivals, death, and the ephemera of everyday life often depict the overlap of traditional practices and the contemporary world.

Perhaps the best example of this intersection occurs in her most famous work, Mujer Ángel. This wistful, iconic image depicts a Seri woman running through the Sonora desert along the Arizona / Mexico border. Though she is dressed in provincial garb and surrounded by a vast, open desert, Iturbide’s “angel woman” carries what appears to be a boom box. This playful subversion of viewer expectations of separation between the traditional and the modern becomes a subtle yet striking indication of the dynamism and hybridity of her subject.

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A lifelong feminist, Iturbide depicts her female protagonists as bold, independent, and powerful—even when they are not physically present. Images in her El baño de Frida (Frida’s Bathroom) series demonstrate the posthumous yet larger than life persona of Frida Kahlo, simply by documenting her things. Iturbide’s only series to contain color photographs, El baño de Frida allows the intense pigments and intimate objects in Kahlo’s bathroom—kept locked for over fifty years following her death—to reanimate the artist. Specifically, the depiction of Kahlo’s festively painted leg brace in Prótesis (prosthesis) reminds a viewer of both the vibrant quality of Kahlo’s work and the great mental and physical pain she channeled into it. In this way, Iturbide not only documents the space but also pays homage to Kahlo’s life, death, and continued aesthetic influence in Mexican culture.

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In seeking to understand Mexico in its totality—that is, composed of dynamic, diverse, and intersectional cultural practices—Iturbide embeds herself in the communities she depicts. As a result of the time and intimacy she devotes to her subjects, her images are empathetic and respectful, but also frequently bizarre, unexpected, or surreal. Procesión (procession) can be read as an allegory to this deeply relational process, in that the viewer and Iturbide herself seem to be swallowed up in an eerie throng of masked people. This sense of being immersed in a confusing yet amazing social gathering includes the viewer in the ritual yet reminds them of their need for greater interpersonal connection in order to understand it. In this way, works like Procesión resist simplification and stereotyping, and thusly demand a continued relationship with the subject matter.

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Graciela Iturbide began her nearly fifty year long career under the mentorship of renowned photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo at la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. She holds honorary degrees from Columbia College and San Francisco Art Institute and has been the recipient of the Lucie Award, the Hasselblad Foundation Photography Award, the Legacy Award from the Smithsonian Latino Center, and a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. Her work has been exhibited in major exhibitions at Tate Modern, Museo Frida Kahlo, Museo de Arte Moderno, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, and is part of permanent collections at LACMA, the Brooklyn Museum, MoMA, SFMoMA, Yale University Art Gallery, and the Centre Georges Pompidou. She currently lives and works in Coyoacán, Mexico.

– Rica Maestas
Public Human

March 23, 2017

We, the directors of the Northeast Small College Art Museum Association (NESCAMA), are deeply concerned about potential budget cuts that threaten funding so vital to us and to the good work that arts organizations do throughout the nation. We must continue to hold the line and to promote the arts energetically through the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

With small operational budgets, college and university art museums are particularly reliant on funding from the NEH, NEA, and IMLS. This funding preserves artistic, ethnographic, scientific, and historic collections, and creates access to cultural heritage unique to our respective diverse communities. This funding not only supports essential infrastructure, it enables us to pursue transformative programs that provide employment for emerging and young professionals. This funding ensures that our collections are interpreted, understood, and valued.

College and university art museums are uniquely — and importantly  — positioned to make connections beyond the fine arts, to include disciplines from science to business, and to foster engagement beyond campus and into our communities. Our work inspires scholarship and engenders innovation. Our museums provide opportunities for young scholars to explore ideas and worlds that are challenging, encouraging critical thinking that will be of use in any professional path they choose to follow after graduation.

During this era of increasing polarization, museums, through their collections and exhibitions, demonstrate that there are multiple points of view and that these points of view can coexist.

While the debate about federal funding for the arts is nothing new,  we encourage members of Congress to recognize that the resilience of the NEH, NEA, and IMLS, despite opposition over the years, is a testament to their enduring value.

Signed,

Dan Mills, Director
Bates Museum of Art, Bates College

Anne Collins Goodyear & Frank H. Goodyear, Co-Directors
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bowdoin College

Sharon Corwin, Carolyn Muzzy Director and Chief Curator
Colby College Museum of Art, Colby College

Jo-Ann Conklin, Director
David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University

Lisa Fischman, Ruth Gordon Shapiro ’37 Director
Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Clare I. Rogan, Curator
Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University

James Mundy, The Anne Hendricks Bass Director
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College

Ian Berry, Dayton Director
The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College

Anja Chávez, Director of University Museums
Longyear Museum of Anthropology/Picker Art Gallery, Colgate University

David E. Little, Director & Chief Curator
Mead Art Museum at Amherst College

Richard Saunders, Director
Middlebury College Museum of Art, Middlebury College

Tricia Y. Paik, Florence Finch Abbott Director
Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, Mount Holyoke College

Kristina L. Durocher, Director
Museum of Art, University of New Hampshire

Janie Cohen, President, Board of Directors
New England Museum Association

Kristin Parker, Interim Director
The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University

Tracy L. Adler, Johnson-Pote Director
Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College

Jessica Nicoll, Director and Louise Ines Doyle ’34 Chief Curator
Smith College Museum of Art, Smith College

Christina Olsen, Class of 1956 Director
Williams College Museum of Art, Williams College

Lisa Parola

Politically motivated violence, the political use of violence, violence as agitation, precarious violence, wide-spread violence, subaltern violence. Stressing that there cannot be a single interpretation to any of these phenomena, Fatma Bucak creates works that require a timely ethic derived from the relationship between the political, the poetic, and those who watch. The artist’s recent works evokes themes such as oppression, censorship, grief of disappearances and political violence.

Considering the complex tangle of facts and narratives around issues of political violence, this ethic is particularly evident in Remains of what has not been said: a series of photographs chronicling the collecting and processing of Turkish newspapers over 84 days beginning on 7 February 2016. This date marks the Cizre basement killings in south-eastern Turkey, a moment of fear and contradiction that typifies emotions still present across Turkey and Europe. The newspapers collected over the course of 84 days are visualized first as a video performance entitled Scouring the press in which two women and the artist wash the newspaper pages until they are opaque and devoid of content. Accompanying this video performance is a photographic series in which the artist is seen holding 84 glass jars containing the resulting blackened, spoiled water.

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Fatma Bucak, Detail of installation view of Remains of what has not been said, 2016. Eighty-four digital archival pigment prints. This work was made possible through the generous support of the Fondazione Sardi Per l’Arte, Torino.

Questions arise. How do you put art in conversation with current affairs, not just in Turkey, but across the world? And perhaps more pressingly what is the role of art and the artist in recent decades of violence and serious violations of human rights? In the first decade of the millennium, these topics have become the subject of much research by artists and curators who for various reasons have intervened on issues such as politics, communication, violence, and censorship. They approach political violence from specific cultural contexts that are increasingly market-oriented, investment-centric, and obviously embedded in spectacle, which diminishes the function of civil and political art and culture.

By contrast, Bucak’s recent work proposes artwork and the exhibition as a space for debate and reflection. In Europe and internationally, such interrogation has centered on two lines of research: the re-reading of parts of history and the documentation of facts looking forward. Bucak’s works engage both of these themes through a dialogue between art and current events. Her projects interrogate what is happening in Mediterranean countries and the surrounding region, poetically demand changes in perspectives, practices, and policies—exploring that fragile relationship full of gray areas between what has been, what is, and what will be.

The horizons in Remains of what has not been said gesture towards the boundaries and geographies that are increasingly difficult to define, and they challenge the rationalism of cartography. History has frayed, geographically speaking, and it is no longer possible to represent it as a closed geometry. Dismissing rhetoric and clichés that all too often accompany reflections on culture and art—especially regarding marginalized groups—Bucak deals with specific situations that bring out unexpected perspectives, suppressed facts, liminal places, inhabited borders, flexible time, and narrative geographies. Immersed in this tarnished landscape of political violence, her works do not merely present the public with a depiction of a temporary event, but they also provide a glimpse of what violence conceals. This prompts new interpretations and the opportunity to reexamine history, the present, and our place in it.

Bucak’s work reminds us that art and culture are transversal concepts that address memory, identity, testimonies and collective experience. Art can be a medium for questioning the past, but it must be able to establish a critical distance. Linear understandings of cultural identity promote simplicity at the expense of the very real complexity of what is happening around us. If we understand art as a space for political discussion, never before have images had so much potential as conceptual “resignification tools” to respond to crisis and failing paradigms of modernity. Art as political action during this global transition cannot simply represent what is. Art must also challenge reality and the power structures that underpin it, and ultimately art must challenge its own borders.

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Chitra Ganesh has made her name in the art world by defamiliarizing canonical narratives—integrating popular imagery like Bollywood posters, anime, and comic books with lesser known Hindu and Buddhist icons as well as 19th century European fairly tales. The resulting images participate in the nuanced conversation surrounding contemporary imperialism, subalternity, and the subversion of power. Specifically, much of Ganesh’s work engages with the colonial Indian term junglee, which literally translates to “of the jungle.” Though the idiom is traditionally used to denote women who are perceived as wild, defiant, or transgressive, Ganesh utilizes the term to empower her female protagonists who often include pin-ups, priestesses, warriors, witches, mothers, and goddesses.1

Her mixed media collage, Cat Women Series, epitomizes this kitschy, enigmatic, and complex style, making use of handmade paper, embroidery, drawing, and painting, as well as a wealth of inscrutable folkloric references. While bizarre and slippery, Cat Women Series seems to deal with conflicting expectations of femininity in practical application. Though the smoking, nude, headless, and three-breasted heroine appears to be running, given the position of her leg and athletic footwear, her other leg has been taken over by an enormous rose—a clichéd indicator of romantic love in Western traditions. In this struggle between running and the rose, the protagonist is reproachfully monitored by an open book, which may indicate expectations of female independence derived from higher education or the omnipresence of patriarchal narratives. Overall, the work imparts a vibrant sense of stasis—trapped headless between domineering narratives, expectant love, and an enormous plume of smoke—that can be read as a commentary on the condition of being a woman in post-colonial post-modernity.

Ganesh has remained relatively close-lipped about the exact meanings of her pieces. In fact, she has stated that she intends her images to have “friction” and “dissonance” between text and image, which contributes significantly to the general sense of mystery and peculiarity in her work.2 She has however been very clear about her intent to confront and subvert traditional power dynamics through her work by privileging “buried narratives or marginalized figures typically excluded from official canons of history, literature, and art.”3

Ganesh has exhibited widely in the United States and abroad and has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, Art Matters Foundation Grant, and a Columbia University Dean’s Fellowship. She is currently a collaborator with artist Miriam Ghani on the Index of the Disappeared, an ongoing so-called “parasitic archive” of the disappearance of immigrant, ‘other,’ and dissenting communities post-9/11. She received her MFA in painting from Columbia University and her undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature and Art-Semiotics from Brown.

– Rica Maestas

1Gopenath, Gayatri. “Chitra Ganesh’s Queer Re-Visions.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies (2009): 469.
2Ibid., 471.
3Ibid., 469.

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