In a recent post, I talked about the photographer Carrie Mae Weems and the recent retrospective of her work, which I had the great good fortune to see, in particular a series called “From Here I Saw What Happened…and I Cried.” But as I said, she has a tremendous body of work and I want to comment on several of them. Today, I’m going to focus on several images from an earlier series, “American Icons.” (Her web site contains links to representations of most of her work, including a lot not in the retrospective; I’ve linked to it through these posts. Go see, reader, go see.)
“American Icons” is a series of photographs of rather ordinary American domestic interiors…with racist figurines placed among them as decor. Mini-models of what were once called minorities, or worse. African-Americans as cooks and porters; Asians as exotic Orientals…you get the drift. Weems’s cultural commentary follows from what I’ve just described here: these figures are casually grouped among the ordinary and quotidian. Interpretation: racism is ubiquitous, ordinary, so common and so casual in the domestic space we don’t see it until it is specifically called out. And, racial Others are commodities for work and amusement: these figurines are their proxies, naturalizing servitude and exoticism.
But. (Or, maybe I should say “and” instead.) One of the things I love about Weems is her ability to comment on multiple levels. I don’t think the (one-time) ordinariness of racism is the only message here. One of the images that struck me most forcefully was a photograph of two African-American cook figurines placed in the kitchen. Something about the juxtaposition of these figures with the kitchen implements around them seemed extraordinarily meaningful to me. I love the use of everyday objects for their symbolism. So, let me do the meta thing and say what I think their symbolism is, and why.
First, these figurines are tiny. As you can see from the photograph, they are only slightly taller than the counter molding. Their tininess doesn’t seem like a simple representation of actual size: it seems, given the way they are juxtaposed against the molding, a meaningful element in itself. (The molding almost serves as a way to measure their height vis-à-vis the ordinary kitchen items that surround them.) The extreme miniturization gives them a slightly uncanny quality when they are frozen in a large photograph. A companion photograph shows another cook who is even smaller. The placement of the photographs together gives the impression that these figures—and the racism they symbolize—is static or shrinking. Frozen. Not growing, even if being named (in a sense) through this portrayal.
Then there is that juxtaposition. The first thing that struck me, actually, was the placement of the two figures underneath the common kitchen item known as a whisk. Why did it strike me? After all, it’s commonly used to mix things together (eggs and milk; flour and water; and so on), so it’s in almost every kitchen. However, in my childhood my mother more commonly, colloquially, called it a beater–as in “hand me the egg beater.” This may be a regionalism (egg beaters are more commonly the electronic kind, I think), but I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, 100+ miles away from Carrie Mae Weems’s birthplace of Portland. So if it is a regionalism, it may be one she knows as well.
So the African-American figurines are placed below something whose reference term reminds one of slavery—a beater. Once that leapt into my mind, the other implements—again, very common—seemed designed to make viewers think of the cruel treatment of African-Americans under slavery: the iron (given the context, it made me think of the “branded with red-hot irons” in Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom), and other kitchen implements that are about tearing and mangling—the grater, for example. These images seem to work almost in the way poetry does, leading to a chain of associations. In this case, the associations are not about the nuture a kitchen could evoke, but about punishment: beatings and branding. The flesh (of the cantaloupe) cut open.
If the groupings seem poised next to things whose name and function could evoke slavery, they seem, of course, frozen in some time before the Civil Rights Movement. (As indeed they are in a larger sense: the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s rendered the casual domestic placement of such figurines unacceptable.) Why?
I think it’s because they seem to be always underneath a light source that they can’t seem to reach. A light source—the electrical socket—is insistently in the pictures, but not in a way meaningful or accessible to the figurines. It’s only visible, in fact, to the viewer. Particularly in the photograph of the couple, the beater is their closest element, not the light sockets. If we draw out the chain of associations, light (the Civil Rights movement as new dawn, illumination, power) is just out of reach for these characters. One could even extrapolate a harshness: they are unable to plug in to a power that is there, but not within their grasp.
Again, it is a tribute to Weems’s work that this chain of associations can be so evocative. Soon, I’ll post a third observation, about her representations of history generally.