By Muirin Kramer
Carrie Mae Weems’ Kitchen Table Series (1990) tells the semi-fictional story of a woman caught between the personal and the political. Played by Weems herself, a female subject is the constant in these evocative images. In 20 vignettes accompanied by text, the life of this woman develops beneath a sharp glaring light borrowed from an interrogation room, with space for the viewer / witness / interrogator left vacant at the nearer side of the table. The series is about power, and about how we find and come to terms with our own power. Weems herself has noted…
‘from the very beginning, I’ve always been interested in the idea of power and the consequences of power; relationships are made and articulated through power’.
She uses her body in the images as a vehicle for questioning widely established ideas about the dynamics of power, both in the internal confines of a relationship and in the extrinsic ever-changing expressions of female self portraiture at the end of the twentieth century, when portraits began to look behind the scenes of femininity, examining it from the inside out and combatting prevailing depictions of women that had attempted to gaze in from the outside.
Power in the Kitchen Series comes in a costume of investigation and development: Weems chooses how to image herself, how to investigate herself and what of this to manifest into the continual narrative of her professional work. The series is an exercise in sovereignty over oneself. It expresses both the complexities of being female and the complications of expressing this, and so it lays out the artist’s personal brand of femininity. As Sarah Lewis writes in her introduction to the series: ‘the animating focus is about coming into our own, how any quest of sovereignty is shaped not just by longing, striving towards a newly enlarged vision of one’s self in the world’. Weems’ making of herself into semi-fiction is control and power in and outside of her art.
Weems uses the camera as her voice, as a powerful extension of her body playing witness to herself. She breaks the distance between subject and object, the distance from behind and in front of the camera, simultaneously breaking the fourth wall having staged, directed and performed in each image. She uses the tension caused by this broken distance to her advantage, examining the roles of everyday gender performance through her roles played before the camera. She names this figure her muse:
‘this woman can stand in for me and for you, she can stand in for the audience, she leads you into history. She’s a witness and a guide’.
Weems’ use of autobiographical impulse mixed with fictional staging gives her power in creation. One of her strategies is the supporting text which sheds narrative onto her images. Her episodic story shifts focalisers: her partner and daughter are both given space in the narrative voice, allowing for multiple insights into the subject ultimately controlled by the artist. The duality of her texual and visual narrative creates a universality, a sense of the everywoman – her work being about more than just herself but a universal saga of development, change and dynamic.
“She insisted that what he called domineering was a jacket being forced on her because he couldn’t stand the thought of the inevitable shift in the balance of power. She assured him that the object of her task was not to control him, but out of necessity – freedom being the appreciation of necessity – to control herself. She went on to tell him that in the face of the daily force she understood his misgivings. But they were in a 50-50 thing. Equals. She wasn’t about to succumb to standards of tradition which denied her a rightful place or voice, period. She was trying to be a good woman, compadre, a pal, a living-doll and she was working. How could he ask for more!! She was really getttin tired of him talkin out of both sides of his mouth about the kinda woman he wanted. Fish or cut bait.”