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Book Review: Kitchen Table Series


Book Review Kitchen Table Series By Carrie Mae Weems Reviewed by Sarah Bay Gachot Kitchen Table Series, a set of 20 platinum-print photographs and 14 screen-printed texts by Carrie Mae Weems, was completed in 1990 and has been exhibited in museums and other institutions in a number of permutations and layouts since then. Now, it is a book.
Kitchen Table Series. By Carrie Mae Weems. 
Damiani/Matsumoto Editions, 2016.
Kitchen Table Series
Reviewed by Sarah Bay Gachot

Kitchen Table Series
Photographs by Carrie Mae Weems. Text by Adrienne Edwards and Sarah Lewis.
Damiani/Matsumoto Editions, Bologna, Italy, 2016. 86 pp., 34 black-and-white illustrations, 9¾x13½".


Kitchen Table Series, a set of 20 platinum-print photographs and 14 screen-printed texts by Carrie Mae Weems, was completed in 1990 and has been exhibited in museums and other institutions in a number of permutations and layouts since then. Now, it is a book. When something like this is published — the bound version of a vivid photo/text project made 30 years ago — it feels like finally having full access to a great film previously consumed with fervor in bits and pieces from television sets in random hotel rooms. And this would be the Criterion edition at that; a gorgeous presentation.

I have seen parts of Kitchen Table Series in passing, looped in by the magnetic force of Weems as she depicts herself in a small room — sitting alone, with a lover, friends, a little girl, standing, arching her back, or in the embrace of a man. The images are so simple: a table, a hanging lamp, the players. Objects shift, disappear, and enter the frame — these articles, everyday things of living, function as the setting, as exposition as in a screenplay. There is a poster of Malcolm X, postcards and photographs taped to the wall, a pet bird in a cage, a box of chocolates, cards, a girl’s homework, or a cigarette. A bottle of whisky in one picture drawls we’re going to go there, wherever “there” may be. A game of solitaire sighs effortless independence. A telephone in its cradle sits like the stubborn silence of heartbreak.

Kitchen Table Series. By Carrie Mae Weems. Damiani/Matsumoto Editions, 2016.

These objects are talismans that creep into Weems’ texts, though not explicitly. Weems has said the texts are inspired by the images more than directly written to support them. Through photographs, the story saunters along in the life of a character who draws people into her orbit. Through the written words, the story marches and sings, precise in its sure-footedness about independence, love and desire, family, work, and relationships. “They walked, not hand in hand, but rather side by side,” says the text about new love. The economy of this sentence goes straight for the gut.

At times, I think the people who populate these images aside from Weems are ghost storytellers, serving to stand in for the wide world outside of the room. Other times, Weems seems the ghost — she touches a lover’s head with such grace as he plays harmonica over a decimated lobster with his third tall-boy Budweiser close by (in this image she has not touched her food), or she challenges another lover, sidelong, from her place at the table as they play cards, him with a pile of spent peanut shells and dragging on a cigarette, her holding her cards close. In all of these images, the character of “She” possesses the room, and She controls it, but the comings and goings of others have her presence shifting like the weather.

Kitchen Table Series. By Carrie Mae Weems. Damiani/Matsumoto Editions, 2016.
Kitchen Table Series. By Carrie Mae Weems. Damiani/Matsumoto Editions, 2016.

“She was in her solitude, so it wasn’t nobody’s business what she did,” reads the text before a last image of the book, an ironic line considering how deeply I feel drawn into this story. Despite the symbolism throughout Kitchen Table Series — telephones, cages, cigarettes, and hats — its straightforwardness is absolutely devoid of cliché. Weems is simply being honest, telling the story of a person in her relationships and, in return, the book is rife with emotional pull. The story might snap to in front of each individual viewer, conforming to however they happen to see it.

Kitchen Table Series. By Carrie Mae Weems. Damiani/Matsumoto Editions, 2016.

bell hooks has written that Weems “has continually offered decolonized radical revisioning of the black female body,” and this could be the case here, for if you choose to see a black female body in this work, that is your prerogative. Weems has grappled with stereotypes and racial association in her career on many levels, and, in the case of Kitchen Table Series, she has said in an interview with W magazine, “the work in many ways is universal at its core, but we can certainly also use it to talk about the position of black representation.” But also, more to the point, the project can be used to talk “about the relationships between men and women, women and children, women and women, and to have large discussions about the issue of the representations of blacks and their relationships.” In this scope, Weems presents us with a whole story that touches upon a host of human concerns.

Kitchen Table Series. By Carrie Mae Weems. Damiani/Matsumoto Editions, 2016.

“How do we find our own power?” is the question that scholar Sarah Lewis hones in on in her forward to Kitchen Table Series. These photographs and text speak of power, love, monogamy and sacrifice, desire, and self. It is a beautiful presentation that gives space and time over the course of 79 pages. It’s a book you may feel yourself falling into, rather than reading. Don’t hold back.—SARAH BAY GACHOT


SARAH BAY GACHOT  is a writer, educator, and artist who lives in Los Angeles, California. She is the editor and author of Robert Cumming: The Difficulties of Nonsense (Aperture, 2016) and will be curating a show of Cumming’s photographs at the George Eastman Museum in 2017. Lylesfur.tumblr.com

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