The Kitchen Table: Through the Lens of Carrie Mae Weems and Others

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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