Upon entering the List Art Center lobby, it is impossible to miss the panoramic series of powerful black and white framed photographs on the walls. Expressive poses and dramatic lighting capture different phases of a woman’s life, all centered around a kitchen table.
The appropriately titled “Kitchen Table Series” by Carrie Mae Weems will be on display through Dec. 21. It accompanies Weems’ permanent pieces showcased in the gallery.
Weems, an influential contemporary American artist, is a recipient of the 2015 Ford Fellowship as well as the 2013 MacArthur “Genius Grant.” Her art is shown in renowned museums across the world, including the Tate Museum in London and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art also in New York.
The exhibit, first shown in 1990, catalyzed the exploration of issues of identity, especially through photography. Jo-Ann Conklin, director of the David Winston Bell Gallery, commented on the innovative and progressive nature of Weems’ work. “It was done in 1990, which is an early period when people were starting to stage photographs,” she said. “As a black woman photographer who was recognized fairly early, (Weems) is very influential on younger artists dealing with race and identity.”
The series integrates themes on race, class, gender, motherhood and power, with each photograph accompanied by a poetic narrative that combines Weems’ perspective with references to popular songs such as “It’s only a Paper Moon,” written by Yip Harburg and Billy Rose.
“You can build your own narrative, but she has also supplied a written narrative,” Conklin said, in reference to the accompanying text.
Weems employs realism in both the photographs and the accompanying texts to create an intimate and universal story. The artist manipulated a single setting to portray everything from romantic relationships, compassionate friendships and maternal love to racism, hardships and individuality. She also challenged the traditional notions of gender roles, as the female protagonist is the breadwinner of the family, and believed motherhood was “a punishment for Eve’s sin,” according to the photograph’s description.
The evocative images focus primarily on identity. “It shows you her roles as a lover, mother, scholar and a caretaker. That makes it relevant to all of us,” Conklin said.
To Paola Vasquez ’21, the photograph displaying the heroine with her hands on the table, gazing intently at the camera, was the most powerful. “Throughout the story, she is coming to know who she is,” Vasquez said. “Her experience with a man, friends and having a daughter, they all play a role in that. But who she is, is now solely described by herself.”